Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What if development were an iPhone?

In my last post, I argued that the "operating system" used by the current international aid agencies is still in the dark ages.  I compared it to the punch cards we used when I first went to college.  We had to type our 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 desktop (or laptop) computers, and several billion people have access to cell phones, which are beginning to emulate computers in many ways.  The advent of the iPhone and Android platforms also provide a way for hundreds of thousands of individuals or small companies to create and distribute new software.  That software may or may not succeed in the marketplace, but at least it has a chance of being downloaded and used, and there is a mechanism whereby the most popular new applications get flagged to other users.

So 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 is eligible to suggest what problems should be addressed?
  2. Who is able to suggest the best solutions to those problems?
  3. Who can fund those solutions?
  4. Who can compete to implement those solutions?
  5. Who is able to give feedback on how well the solutions work?
The existing system is closed.  It assumes that most of these questions will be answered within one of the "mainframe" organizations such as the World Bank, ADB, UNDP and bilateral agencies.  It even holds true for some large NGOs.  In each case, the organization tries to hire the best experts it can find to answer these questions.

A new aid system - a decentralized and distributed system - is now possible.  The expertise, resources, and technology all exist.  Unlike sixty years ago, large numbers of people (and not only experts) have relevant experience for the challenges faced by developing countries.  For example, the Peace Corps alone has over 250,000 alumni, but only the relatively few who work in aid agencies or large NGOs are able to contribute the expertise and knowledge they have.  And regular Americans alone give over $250 billion away each year to charitable causes - of which about 10% or $25 billion goes overseas - about the same amount as the US aid budget.  And the emergence of the PC, internet, cellphones, and related technology now make it possible to connect all of these people and resources directly to the people who need help.  If the existing agencies that run closed systems don't adapt, they will quickly become as irrelevant as the old IBM mainframes we used to use.

GlobalGiving shows that a distributed aid operating system can work.  We allow any qualified group in the world to post a project, and anyone (individual, company, foundation, or even aid agency) to fund it directly.  Projects have to post updates quarterly, and funders are allowed to ask questions and make comments.  We also allow other interested parties to visit and comment on the projects.  Most recently, we have begun to pilot ways of getting feedback directly from the beneficiaries via text messaging and even storytelling (thanks to support from the Rockefeller Foundation). Based on all this feedback, the projects that seem to be making the most difference get displayed higher on our search listings, which generally results in more funding - allowing the cream to rise to the top. 

The results have been that 2,700 projects in 110 countries have been funded over the past few years. Over 108,000 individual donors, combined with many leading foundations and companies around the world, have provided $30 million to these projects.  And many of these projects provide impact at a fifth of the cost of official aid projects (for example, irrigating land), while others pilot dramatic new ways to address such challenges as de-mining and tuberculosis, for example by training rats.

But that is only the proof of concept - and the tip of the iceberg.  In my next post, I will talk about why we keep innovating so fast at GlobalGiving, and how the GlobalGiving "operating system" could be adopted by the official aid sector, so that billions of dollars flow to the best projects in the most efficient way.