Live Aid – giving the crowd more feedback

April 26th, 2010 by

Ever since images of starving children were beamed around the world in the 1980s, global poverty – especially in sub Saharan Africa – has been recognized as one of the world’s major problems. Live Aid and twenty years later Live 8 seemed to unite the world in the effort to make poverty history, once and for all.

Although Bob Geldoff and Live 8 had the power to bring Pink Floyd together for the first time in decades, the effort to alleviate poverty has been less successful. It all seemed so simple, when Bono and Bob were on the stage. If only governments of the world would just double the aid that they give to poor countries, then poverty would be history.

Dead Aid?
But even if governments had increased aid in line with the pop stars’ pleadings, it seems unlikely that poverty would be about to disappear. A series of well publicized books by the likes of Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly have even argued that far from helping the situation, limitless aid fosters corruption and dependence, hinders economic development and actually perpetuates poverty.

Not surprisingly, these arguments have met with significant criticism, from both aid organizations and prominent thinkers such as Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier. For armchair observers of this debate, deciding who makes the better case is an interesting challenge, but in my opinion virtually impossible. Each argument rests on analysis of information so detailed that even drawn out, intense debate does not resolve them.

The invisible hand-outs
In this enormously complex debate, one argument that is difficult to refute is that the multitudes of poor are better at deciding what their own unique needs are than rich world planners (and even pop stars). In a free market economy, needs are clearly signalled by demand. The invisible hand allocates resources accordingly. But when it comes to aid, feedback from the poor on the ground has little way of reaching the governments and donors – even those that attend festivals like Live 8.

A related and even more obvious point is that handouts alone will not eradicate poverty. Unfortunately, the private investment required for sustainable development has largely bypassed Africa because of perceived instability (this is changing, with help from Chinese investment). Much of what constitutes “aid” is used to make up for this lack of private investment.

The explosion in mobile phone usage across Africa over the last decade, that now sees Kenya as the world leader in money transfer by mobile phone may allow crowdsourcing-based solutions to help remedy both of these problems.

One such solution is the employment opportunities offered by crowdsourcing companies such as txteagle and samasource, bypassing of the need for investment traditionally required for job creation.

Another, yet to be fully explored possibility is using crowdsourcing to improve the effectiveness of money spent on aid. Crowdsourcing is already used by Citizen Water to collect water quality data which is then displayed on an interactive map. Participants in Ghana, The Philippines, Dominican Republic, and China are informed of treatment solutions which they can produce locally, based on their specific test results, along with education about water and sanitation. Crowdsourcing was also successfully used to channel disaster relief aid in Haiti.

But what if crowdsourcing was used to provide direct feedback to aid agencies and donors on the results of money spent? This would not only provide a voice for those actually affected by the aid, but also bypass those who stand to gain from influencing the results (be they corrupt government or aid workers). In this way it would give clear signals when a particular policy was working and also allow donors to see how their money is spent. This could be done by using Sibesonke’s technology that allows internet services to be provided for the lowest-end mobile phones through SMS and USSD protocols.

In the past, a key question in my mind before deciding to support a charity was “is my money actually going to make a difference?” After reading some of Moyo and Easterly’s arguments I now also ask myself “will my money do more harm than good?” I don’t want to overstate this point – I think most charities deliver their goals very effectively – but I think increased feedback can only be a good thing. Not only will this help money to be spent productively, it will also encourage more to be given. The only downside is that it will mean that I never get to see Pink Floyd play again.