Blind Spots in International Development 2014 Winners

Applications for the inaugural Blind Spot in International Development Essay Contest​​ were due on October 12, 2014. Winners were selected in November. To learn which applicants won and read their essays click here.

Preamble for Mission Staff


“What is the most significant overlooked development challenge
that can be addressed using STIP?”

USAID and Big Ideas@Berkeley want your help to uncover and analyze the “blind spots” in international development. Use your field experience, knowledge or expertise to help USAID identify development challenges that are currently overlooked, yet are in need of immediate attention. In particular, we want to hear about those unrecognized challenges that would benefit from the power of science, technology, innovation, or strategic partnership (STIP) and potentially improve the lives of millions.

This contest seeks essays, 1750-2000 words in length (not including reference sections and citations), that address the following questions:

  • What and where is the unrecognized development challenge that you have observed?
  • What social, economic, political, and/or environmental barriers exist that are related to this development blind spot? (Please cite studies, reports, and/or technical data to provide proof/background.)
  • Is there a population subset—children, youth, women, minorities, LGBT, etc.—whose lives could be improved as a result?
  • If the development blind spot were overcome using STIP, what might the impact be locally, regionally, nationally, or globally (qualitatively or quantitatively)?

Examples of Blind Spots

USAID and Big Ideas@Berkeley seek a wide scope and variety of existing blind spots in international development. This could be the misidentification of root problems in an existing project, related issues that arise during an intervention, or areas that have largely been overlooked by the development community as a whole. Our definition of a blind spot is purposefully loose in order to capture a range of experiences, and your insights while volunteering, working or studying abroad are of interest.

Below are three abbreviated examples of potential “blind spots” essay topics. These examples are only meant to provide guidance for applicants to help them better understand the intent of this contest.

Rural Energy Solutions in Kenya

A diverse team of economists and engineers designed a sophisticated microgrid system to help “offgrid” homes in rural Kenya obtain electricity. Once the team was on the ground they found that 70% of households were close enough to the existing grid to be connected, but a one-time “hook-up” fee of $400 was deterring families from signing up.

Blind spot: The development issue was not a complete lack of power access requiring a novel technology solution. The complex problem required incorporating new technology as well as more sustainable financing and distribution mechanisms – including pay-as-you-go power systems – within the existing electricity grid.

Rural Broadband Models in Haiti

Implementers established a wider-reaching broadband network, with the hope that Internet service providers (ISPs) would capitalize on the opportunity and develop packages and solutions affordable to rural clients. While they were able to put in place a broadband network that covered most of the country – at costs significantly lower than the alternative of satellite (VSAT) connectivity – the service packages offered by ISPs were still cost prohibitive for rural residents. Based on interviews conducted with the ISPs, the team discovered that the cost of broadband connectivity in Haiti is relatively high. The wholesale cost of broadband Internet coming into Haiti ranges from $200 USD to $600 USD per month per Mbps, compared to a cost of only $16 USD per month per Mbps coming into Miami.

Blind spot: The lack of rural connectivity did not result from a hardware issue, but rather reflected a cost issue. Until the monthly cost of broadband was negotiated down, full network capacity could not be utilized and ISPs would not be willing or able to offer affordable service packages to rural communities.

Novel Farming Models in Kenya

A community launched a new program to integrate new farming techniques for small scale farming families with a communal sales center. This new model guaranteed the community set their prices together and benefited from the increased income from the excess crops. After three years, several farms were indeed using the new techniques, producing excess crops and using the communal model to sell those crops to larger distributors. However, the net income of those families did not increase to the amount it should.

Blind spot: Local laws allowed the village chiefs, and primary brokers between the farmers and the distributor, to take a percentage of the crop sales per farmer family. Despite the sound theory behind the novel farming approach, unionizing the farmers did not ensure that they were the primary beneficiaries of the newly liberated capital.



Individuals in the following cohorts are eligible to apply to this essay contest:

  1. Partnerships for Enhanced Engagement in Research (PEER): Awardees and their research teams.
  2. Research and Innovation Fellows: Fellows and Hosts
  3. USAID Mission Staff (*Note: Mission staff are not eligible for the financial awards, but may receive recognition prizes)
  4. All matriculated undergraduate and graduate students from the following universities within USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network:

  • UC Berkeley
  • College of William and Mary
  • Duke University
  • Makerere University (Uganda)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Michigan State University
  • Texas A&M University

Judging Criteria

Your essay will be scored (% provided in parenthesis) based on the quality of the following content.

  1. Description of the development challenge and the location or region of observation. (25%)
  2. Novelty of the blind spot — How significant and overlooked is the development challenge? (10%)
  3. Description of the social, economic, political, and/or environmental barriers related to this development blind spot (Please cite studies, reports, and/or data to provide proof/background.) (25%)
  4. Description of the population subset—children, youth, women, minorities, LGBT, (etc.) whose lives could be improved as a result. (25%)
  5. If the development blind spot were overcome using STIP, what might the impact be locally, regionally, nationally, or globally (qualitatively and quantitatively)? (15%)


      • September 2: Competition launches
      • September 2 to October 1: Online application period for essay submission.
      • October 1: Competition Deadline (12pm, Pacific Time)
      • October 3 to October 17: Judges Review Period
      • November 10: Formal announcement of Winners

Awards and Recognition

Three monetary prizes and up to 5 recognition prizes will be awarded to the top development challenge essays.


      • First Place: $3,000 (USD)
      • Second Place: $2,000 (USD)
      • Third Place: $1,000 (USD)


    • A small set of the top development challenges will be used as selection criteria for a special USAID prize at the 2016 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF)
    • Winning development challenges to be posted on the U.S. Global Development Lab website
    • Promotion of winning essays through HESN and USAID networks (newsletters, social media, websites)
    • Editorial advice/guidance for placement of essays in external publications (e.g., Journal of International Development “Field Report”)


Please direct any questions or comments by contacting us at:
Email: blindspots [at] berkeley [dot] edu
Phone: +1.510.666.9120