Christopher Fabian tells the story of something that happened yesterday. Somebody came up with a not-very-good idea for foreign aid: “Let’s collect 1 million t-shirts from the US and send them to Africa.”
The idea was discussed on twitter and on the blogs (including Aid Watch, Aid Thoughts, Tales from the Hood, Amanda Maculec, Siena Anstis, Texas in Africa, and Project Diaspora). A fuller list of reactions is here. Christopher Fabian explains what happened next:
Within a day a development concept has been aired. It has been discussed. Literature has been created around it. Sources cited. Histories referenced. A community built.
Real-time input, from “the field” has just become an actor in “aid/charity/development.” Voices from places which otherwise would never be represented spoke. People in “the place” (“Africa”) where the “aid” was going got to weigh in. Experts who had not met each other were able to share experience, synthesize and create new literature on giving, aid, and development theory.
And it happened in a few hours.
I don’t know what the t-shirt guy will do. I don’t know what his motivations are. It doesn’t really matter, because I have just seen the avalanche start.
Imagine if a large organization could put out its project plans in a way that was as appealing to comment on as this.
Imagine if there was the same transparancy and accountability of ideas in development.
Imagine if there was the same involvement of donors and implementers – and (watch out!) the beneficiaries of projects.
Imagine if we could actually ask people in the developing world what they thought of projects before we started them.
And most importantly, perhaps, imagine if we could fail quickly enough at the beginning of a project to not pour in the resources, ego, and time that sometimes gives otherwise bad ideas an unstoppable, zombie-like momentum.
But wait. We can. And it just happened, right in front of you.
This is indeed pretty interesting: it is the first time that the appraisal an aid project has been crowd-sourced.
It would be even better, of course, if some of the intended beneficiaries had a say.
Subjecting projects to scrutiny by this particular crowd is not ideal: for who are the people doing the scrutiny? The kind of people who comment on twitter and on blogs are not the intended beneficiaries. They are not even typical experienced aid workers (most of the people I know working hard in the field don’t have access to, or time for, twitter and blogs.)
Though on this occasion, the consensus in the crowd was pretty clear that this was a misconceived project.
For all that this is not the ideal crowd to provide scrutiny, it is better than making decisions wholly in private. This invites the question: why aren’t all aid projects subject to this kind of scrutiny, before anyone spends any money on them?