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The Androids are coming, is aid ready?

This post is the second in a series by Dennis Whittle. Dennis is the CEO of GlobalGiving, an international marketplace for philanthropy.

In my last post, I argued that the “operating system” used by the current international aid agencies is stuck using IBM punch cards while the rest of the world has moved on to cell phones, laptops, and iPhones.

In the old system, you had to type programs into a stack of hundreds of punch cards, walk them down to the computer center, hand them to an operator, and wait in line for them to be processed. The lower you were in seniority, the longer you had to wait.

Contrast that with today, when hundreds of millions of people have their own computers, and several billion people have access to cell phones. iPhone and Android platforms now provide a way for hundreds of thousands of individuals to create and distribute new software. That software may or may not succeed in the marketplace, but it can be downloaded and used, and the most popular new apps get flagged to other users.

What would an analogous distributed operating system look like for the aid business?  The design of any such operating system has to address five questions:

  1. Who decides which problems aid should address?
  2. Who comes up with the solutions?
  3. Who gives the funding?
  4. Who competes to implement the solutions?
  5. Who gives feedback on how well the solutions work?

The existing system is closed. It assumes these questions will be answered by experts within one of the “mainframe” organizations like the World Bank, the UNDP, USAID, or one of the big NGOs.

Unlike 60 years ago, the expertise, resources and technology now exist to make a new decentralized and distributed aid system possible. Many more people—and not just experts—have relevant developing country experience (for example, the Peace Corps alone has over 250,000 alumni). Regular Americans give over $25 billion each year to charitable causes abroad—about the same amount as the US official aid budget. And PCs, internet, cell phones and related technologies now make it possible to connect all of these people and resources directly to the people who need help.

Marketplaces that directly connect funders to projects include GlobalGiving, DonorsChoose, MissionFish, GiveIndia, HelpArgentina, Conexion Columbia, Betterplace (Germany), GreaterGood South Africa, Net4Kids (Netherlands).  Markets need quality information, and groups such as Guidestar, New Philanthropy Capital, GiveWell, Great NonProfits, Philanthropedia, Keystone Accountability, Charity Navigator, and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance have begun to operate mechanisms that collect and make available data from a wide variety of sources. Technology startups such as Frontline SMS and Ushahidi are making it possible for beneficiaries to have direct input into what they need ex-ante (schools? health clinics? microcredit?) and how well projects are being implemented once underway.  Other initiatives (for example, Jumo) are in the planning stages.

Not all of these new initiatives will succeed.  But within a few years, it will be possible for any person or group in the world to help answer any of the five questions above that form the core of the aid operating system.  If the existing agencies that run closed systems don’t adapt to this new set of conditions, they will become as irrelevant as old IBM mainframes.

Related post: Is aid stuck using IBM punch cards?

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7 Comments

  1. p wrote:

    Re: Technology startups such as Frontline SMS and Ushahidi are making it possible for beneficiaries to have direct input into what they need ex-ante (schools? health clinics? microcredit?) and how well projects are being implemented once underway.

    Please read this blog post from Ushahidi to see why this is a sentence that is akin to saying that Microsoft Excel, Google Docs, or Web Forums are increasing transparency. It is not those tools, but organizations / projects that are using those tools to increase transparency that are doing so.

    In fact, if we want to talk about tools that let people talk back, we should understand that the mobile phone / SMS is the part of that tool that is allowing for lots and lots of beneficiaries to talk back. FSMS + Ushahidi are there for aggregating those messages. Aggregation tools aren’t by themselves enabling beneficiaries to talk back. They are great ways to use information when beneficiaries do talk back. And to design systems so one can listen to lots of them, analyze what they say.

    But designing systems (even with these tools) that actually allow (the right) beneficiaries to talk back, and that in a meaningful way, is the hard part. So mention those systems and projects, rather than the tool.

    (Of course, you could mention the tools if there were so many projects using them effectively for ‘listening to beneficiaries’ that there could be an easy link made between one and the other. But that is hardly the case.)

    Posted July 6, 2010 at 12:26 am | Permalink
  2. Ned Breslin wrote:

    This trend is most welcome – will shed light on the reality of development assistance in new ways, and help move sector from PR to substance. World will be a better place when “beneficiaries” have an unfiltered voice in the game. Still some years away, but we need to push this! Thanks, nice piece

    Posted July 6, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  3. p,

    That is a very good point about needing systems to use the tools. I agree completely. You need the tools to enable the systems to enable the feedback. Now that the tools are increasingly available, the hard (and exciting) part is designing the systems to run on top of the tools.

    Dennis

    Posted July 6, 2010 at 11:49 am | Permalink
  4. Andy wrote:

    One thing that troubles me. A GPS app, just like a school, does not stand alone, it is one element of a complex system that allows it to work. I am concerned that the focus on disaggregated, decentralized funding/implementing will create a focus on disaggregated “projects” that ignore the importance of the underlying, enabling systems. We need to begin to think about how these systems can be supported within a decentralized development field as well.

    Posted July 6, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink
  5. David Carreon wrote:

    I’m running a mobile tech project with Nuru. Even in very rural Kenya, we’ve got all our staff using the Internet on $40 Nokias.

    The extreme poor will very soon have access to the internet. The whole internet. They don’t need specially designed programs to help poor people communicate. They’ve got Facebook, Google and Blogger. This blog was written by one of our field staff (a farmer), typed into his Nokia and emailed to our webmaster in the states.

    The tools exist. The networks exist. The hardware is still a bit expensive for the poorest of the poor, but within a few years, it will have arrived even for them.

    So the question for you aid thinkers is: Do you really honestly want to hear from them? Will you actually listen? Do you want Nuru’s farmers to start posting on AidWatch? Will you Facebook Friend the poor and then care about their status updates? What, exactly, do you want to hear about?

    Aid workers: we’re no longer going to hold the key to communication with the developed world. Are we ready for this kind of transparency?

    Posted July 6, 2010 at 4:36 pm | Permalink
  6. Stewart Parkinson wrote:

    Dennis,

    Again, a very interesting post. Two points:

    a) Funding is key. The consumers of aid are not paying for it. The ‘power of the wallet’ is absent. What are the poor to do – refuse assistance if it is not of sufficient quality? I still struggle to answer this question, and feedback would be most welcome.

    b) Language is important. You state:

    “the hard (and exciting) part is designing the systems to run on top of the tools”

    Surely it is the other way around? We need tools (apps) to run on top of systems (OS). The systems need to come first, then the apps. If we don’t prioritize in this way, opportunities might be lost.

    But I could be wrong.

    Posted July 8, 2010 at 12:34 pm | Permalink
  7. sıvı sabun wrote:

    In fact, if we want to talk about tools that let people talk back, we should understand that the mobile phone / SMS is the part of that tool that is allowing for lots and lots of beneficiaries to talk back. FSMS + Ushahidi are there for aggregating those messages. Aggregation tools aren’t by themselves enabling beneficiaries to talk back. They are great ways to use information when beneficiaries do talk back. And to design systems so one can listen to lots of them, analyze what they say.

    Posted July 8, 2010 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

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