1-800-How’s My Spending?

Local people are the experts on whether they are being well-served by a development project or organization.

This observation, simple on the face of it but downright revolutionary in its implications, is at the heart of the story presented by Dennis Whittle of GlobalGiving at last week’s NYU conference  on the privatization of aid.

Local people may be the experts, but for outsiders deciding where their donations can do the most good, getting access to local knowledge and acting on it appropriately requires real-time feedback loops that most aid projects lack.

Over a little more than a year, GlobalGiving combined staff visits, formal evaluation, third-party observer reports called visitor postcards, and internet feedback from local community members to create a nuanced, evolving picture of a community-based youth organization in Western Kenya that had received $8,019 from 193 individual donors through the GlobalGiving website.

Initially, youth in Kisumu were happy with the organization. Among other things, the founder used the money to fund travel and equipment for the local youth soccer team. But the first tip-off that something was going wrong came when a former soccer player complained through GlobalGiving’s online feedback form that “currently the co-ordinator is evil minded and corrupt.” The view that the founder had begun stealing donations and was stifling dissent among his members was expanded upon by other community members, visitors to the project, and a professional evaluator.

In the end, a splinter group broke off and started a new sports organization, and the community shifted their support to the new group. Reflecting the local consensus, GlobalGiving removed the discredited organization from its website. Marc Maxson and Joshua Goldstein, the authors of the case study, write:

We consider this story a seminal case because it illustrates that true community building is neither tidy nor predictable, but is nevertheless possible when feedback facilitates a dialogue….Rapidly spreading new technologies, particularly mobile phones, and SMS-to-web interfaces (e.g. twitter), now allow villagers to report continuously on project progress, and ultimately to guide implementers.

Just having the technology to create the feedback loop isn’t enough to make it happen, though. GlobalGiving first had to explicitly tell beneficiaries that they wanted to hear from them, and then spread the word effectively (through bumper stickers in this case).

In this story, the community consensus seemed clear. Of course, you could easily imagine another scenario in which the real-time feedback loop elicited wildly contrasting opinions, or provoked concerns about who was telling the truth, whether you were seeing a truly representative sample of opinions, or who might be promoting some hidden agenda. We wouldn’t want to dismiss these considerations, but we’ll happily take problems in aggregating or verifying feedback over the alternative, which has for far too long been very little feedback at all.