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?

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23 Responses to Aid projects and the wisdom of crowds

  • Its a shame that One Laptop Per Child was not subjected to this level of scrutiny. Had this taken place it could have saved a lot of time, effort and money

  • Owen – thanks for your post – and I think you are spot on about one huge problem, which I’ll talk about below. Before that, I wanted to clarify my original post on Mobilactive. I was trying to recognize the huge response on twitter to this shirt shenanigan, while also looking *forward* to what it can/could/will be. The “crowd” that we need *must* be the end-”users” themselves – see my last para:

    “Mobile phones are (soon to be) everywhere. Connectivity is growing. Barriers of communication are dropping. If we can learn from this how to publicly lay our ideas on the ground and invite a square-dance on them, we can more correctly link development activity, delivery and effect – and that link can be the person at the very end of the last mile. Let me call this the first crack in the very large iceberg of “charity.””

    Giving them footing in the discourse…that really shakes the tree.

    The point which you raise, and which will be crucial is that of time and simplicity.

    How do we allow for development “professionals” to be doers as *well as* thinkers about the work they’re doing?

    How do we capture the small parts of big ideas in ways that are simple enough that crowdsourcing means something when applied to them?

    How do we ensure that our “language” is the same as the language of the beneficiaries so that discourse is meaningful (“hey, what do you think of the the m+e element in the new LLIN campaign” may not garner much useful feedback on twitter, much less on even more “informal” systems.

    Very much looking forward to seeing these questions play out – thanks again for your post

    chris

  • What I’m glad about is that this debate illustrates the level of maturity regarding what really constitutes aid.

    Way back when, developing countries had no choice but to accept what was dumped on them even by well meaning donors.

  • How soon should you put an idea out of its misery? Is one of the questions asked in the comments.

    This is a very sticky point: at the one hand new ideas sound foolish, and we all prefer searches that can fail. On the other hand the longer an idea languishes, the more difficult it becomes to shoot it down.

    A lot of ideas are promoted by respected elderly or powerful players. People support the idea in international fora, not because the idea is good, but because we want to show respect for to the proponent. Before we know it, we have a new conventional wisdom and a nobody crying that the emperor has no clothes.

    We could refer in this regards to the creation of any new UN organisation or a new “fund” to tackle an issue.

    As an example I could refer to the proposal of the Un-secretary general to realign the UN under 3 pillars: development, humanitarian and environment.

  • “It would be even better, of course, if some of the intended beneficiaries had a say.” Agreed. More and more people in developing countries have mobile phones; it’s not unimaginable that a greater percentage find a use for services like Twitter in future (if only Twitter would bother with Africa). They may not be ‘the poorest of the poor’, but they still know a prize turkey or white elephant when they see one.

  • Owen- I’ve been a long time reader and I was excited to see this piece on crowdsourcing. Actually, from my experience, different variations of crowdsourcing are being implemented or attempted within several organizations in order to better their projects. Have you ever heard of the Development Practitioners Forum? A bit more closed off, only dev. experts can join, but it allows people to share their failures and successes in a safe-haven of sorts. Also, there is Africa Rural Connect- a website dedicated to global collaboration to help build the small ideas and projects (private sector, NGOs, etc.) that are focused on the development of rural Africa and the agricultural sector.

    These crowdsourcing sites are out there- they just need more visibility.

  • Owen – I also agree that the intended beneficiaries should be the ones providing feedback. The problem with the 1 million t-shirt project is that they hadn’t even properly defined their intended beneficiaries. There was a lot of opaque wording of providing t-shirts to the shirtless, listing several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. There was also some talk about setting up widows as used-clothing sellers – too vague to really pin-point who they are targeting.

    One has to be careful how you end up getting feedback from intended beneficiaries – I think if you went to poor families and said “I’ve got a free t-shirt here, would you like it?” most would quickly say yes, rather than ask for something else (which obscures the opportunity cost of having performed a different intervention). Presenting people with options (and trade-offs) is the best approach.

  • Sam – I was the one who asked about how soon you should put an idea out of its misery. This is a difficult problem, with or without crowdsourcing since not all good ideas are manifestly so at the beginning – or bad ones for that matter – the advantage of realtime feeback and the new tech options is that the process of review has been perceptibly democratized and accelerated.

    It’s true that ideas from powerful players still can carry weight because of deference or fear (or deep pockets) not because of their quality. At the same time more people can join the conversation and more perspectives can be added, and even powerful players will find it hard to totally ignore rapid and clear negative feedback.

    I take Owen’s point about “regular aid workers” and beneficiaries not having the time and means to participate – I hear this lament al the time – but I think this is rapidly changing, and will change even more quickly when technology provides the means, but even more importantly when they see that this can an actually have an important impact and that it can help them in their lives and work.

    The #1millionshirts idea is probably exceptional in that from an aidworkers perspective, it is so obviously a bad idea and so the response was fairly unanimous. It will be interesting to see what happens when this is not so clear cut and when the agendas of invested individuals and institutions with different perspectives collide.

  • Haven’t we done this once before with the microfinance debate after Roodman wrote the post “Kiva is not what it seems”? Here is a compilation of all the blog posts that came out then. http://www.philanthropyaction.com/nc/a_mostly_comprehensive_guide_to_the_kiva_and_donor_illusion_debate/
    Granted there were no aid recipients included in that debate either but a variety of perspectives were presented, it was not a concensus.

  • Ian – I agree with you, the issue is not black and white, although sound-bites work better on the internet.

    Like with air flights in volcanic ashes, both types of errors, saying no to a good idea or saying yes to a bad idea will make the allocation of development resources sub-optimal (or even wasteful).

    Moreover, asking the beneficiaries is no panacea: new solutions will never respond to a demand, as the idea is new.

    Going back to the #1milllionshirts, everybody of the in-crowd seems to agree we should send money, not goods. However, when managing a budget line dedicated to support civil society just to do send goods overseas, and stimulate the solidarity in this way, the picture gets more diverse.

    It happens quite often that a group from the diaspora sends things to their village. Is this not very close to “asking the beneficiaries?” Who are we to judge?

    Another group was sending not old clothes but old dentist chairs. It seems that somebody indeed wants old dentist chairs or even old dialysis instruments.

  • Interesting discussion. The “million T-shirts” Reminds me of a recent Pepsi RefreshEverything project to deliver girl scout cookies to the vets in Iraq. I’d met a vet at a dinner party just before this project won, and he was complaining about all the girl scout cookies people send to Iraq. “They tie up the mail system, and we give em to the Philipino contractors anyway,” he said.

    When he saw the project he got all his vet buddies to start voting against it by voting up something else. The problem wasn’t with the inclusiveness of the process or with lack of voice from intended beneficiaries. It turned out to be something more difficult to banish – most of the people with influence would have rather been the beneficiaries of the girl scout cookies, so they assumed the Iraq soldiers would want it too.

    So how do we get people with most of the power to start thinking like the intended beneficiaries do? Maybe by putting more of the actual beneficiaries in charge. I’m excited about what community switchboards like voice of Kibera (http://kibera.ushahidi.com) can do to that end.

  • ‘Crowdsourcing’: what a slippery customer.

    I’m intrigued to see how many comments here assume something data nerds like me would question instinctively. Here’s a sentence to illustrate “Imagine if we could actually ask people in the developing world what they thought of projects before we started them.” And another from Matt: “One has to be careful how you end up getting feedback from intended beneficiaries – I think if you went to poor families and said “I’ve got a free t-shirt here, would you like it?” most would quickly say yes, rather than ask for something else… Presenting people with options (and trade-offs) is the best approach.” “Ask”? “Went to poor families and said…”? “Presenting people with…”? I guess you could define crowdsourcing as a very big survey with a self-selecting sample but is that what we mean here?

    The response to this t-shirt malarkey wasn’t prompted, wasn’t asked for – it just happened. Because people had an opinion about it, felt that their contribution would be meaningful and then got talking in the places they always talk online. It’s largely because it’s unprompted that it’s interesting. Crowdsourcing is, for me, closer to ‘research by discreet listening’. It can be prompted but isn’t bounded. It’s analysis of the everyday made possible by tech that leaves interrogable evidence behind it. That being so, the meat of my point is that the main prerequisite for those unarguably desirable things like ‘beneficiary involvement’ isn’t necessarily the adoption of a particular technology but the use of that technology to do and say things in open, accessible places as part of everyday life. The web is the main place that happens right now. Will it be in future? Will it be in Africa? Probably but not certainly – comparatively closed mobile platforms could emerge.

    We can crowdsource pizza-topping preference in California right now because lots of people in California talk about pizza on the web every day. We can try to predict US unemployment more quickly and accurately than the state by looking at Google Job ads (http://ideas.repec.org/p/fem/femwpa/2010.31.html) because that data is, well, real and timely and there to be used. Maybe we’ll be able to crowdsource citizens’ public health priorities in Ghana when people in Ghana start nattering about health services on the web every day. Or would we find that we’re not looking at a ‘priority’ after all and that those conversations don’t happen much? What if it’s all about generators and road surfacing? Are we willing to change ‘our’ priorities in light of what we discover about ‘theirs’? That’s the exciting, difficult, slightly uncomfortable bit for me (a good thing).

    Don’t want to be too much of a grouch but all this will likely take a long time to happen in most parts of Africa and there’s no realistic way to shortcut the process (isolated ICT ‘projects’ won’t cut it and neither will highly specific ‘mobile services’ which do one or two things at great cost but nowt else.) Perhaps the best we can do is listen to what is already there with an open mind while refining our methodologies to counter the legitimate worries Christopher has about the reliability of crowdsourced info. Oh and do everything we can to promote open standards, open data and flexible APIs to get at it. Everywhere.

  • Wasn’t this the idea of participatory development, started back in the 70′s and still practiced by people in ‘the field’ consider naive by other ‘important’ people in Washignton and Geneva? New technologies may allow for extensions or compresions of communicative processes, but if that communication is not valued by those with power, then what? The current paradigm is that economist know what’s best for the poor; ‘beneficiaries’ do not.

  • Why not be creative? A million t-shirts could be put to good use – donate them to schools in Africa and challenge kids to set up firms and sell them etc. We do company projects of this sort in high schools in the developed world, so why not in Africa? Ingenuity and entrepreneurship would be vital for the developing world right?

    Owen replies: With respect, there is plenty of ingenuity and entrepreneurship in developing countries. What is missing is the social and institutional framework needed to make people’s hard work sufficiently rewarding.

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