Friday, March 12, 2010

On the Shoulders of Giants - Scott Guggenheim Edition

Breakthroughs and successful inventions usually derive from assembling existing technologies or approaches in a novel way at just the right time.   To the extent that we at GlobalGiving have pioneered breakthroughs in aid and philanthropy, we are no different: we stand on the shoulders of giants.

Some giants in our field are well known, but some of the most important are known by few.  One of these is Scott Guggenheim, a former colleagues at the World Bank whom I admire immensely because of what he did to help regular Indonesians get their voices heard.  At GlobalGiving we have recently started piloting SMS tools that allow beneficiaries themselves to provide feedback on how projects are affecting their lives.  The next step is to ask them ahead of time what projects they want to see next.  This is very exciting, and potentially revolutionary.  But we did not invent the concept; we are only extending Scott's work now that new technologies are available.

One of my mentors at the World Bank introduced me to Scott in Jakarta in 1998, warning me ahead of time "Don't judge a book by its cover.  Even though he is an anthropologist type, he is a good guy." (The highest status people at the World Bank were economists at that time.)  Soon after arriving in Jakarta, Scott took the audacious and unprecedented step of taking his team out of the fancy main World Bank offices in the Stock Exchange and relocating them to what he considered a more appropriate space in the city for his work.

So what did Scott do that was so revolutionary?  He and his progressive colleagues in the Indonesian government simply put up signs in all the communities participating in the Bank-funded Village Improvement Program.  The signs told people how much money was being spent on what (bridges, schools, water wells, clinics) and invited them to meetings each month to talk about how things were progressing and about what else the people felt their village needed.

Of course, there were many forces at work to corrupt the process.  Until then, public investment projects were controlled by insiders, costs were inflated, and the people were never consulted.  But Scott and his team held fast against these forces, and over the course of a few years, villagers in the affected areas became empowered as never before.  If they thought costs were inflated, they would take action. If they thought a bridge was more important than a irrigation ditch, they could prevail.  In a real sense, it was the beginning of the Democratization of Development.

Here is a nice paper that Scott wrote about the approach.  It should be required reading for anyone interested in beneficiary (citizen) participation and feedback.