In Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace, Pierre, a young noble, does some philanthropic work in the Russian wastelands. His projects complete, he is thanked profusely by the women, peasants and priests, whom he thought he had benefited. Satisfied, he returns home full of self-worth. However, it soon becomes clear that Pierre had not helped anyone. In fact—working without cultural context or experience—he has aggravated the situation.
The moral of this story—in the context of 21st century development—is perhaps “plus ca change, rien ne change.” The results of developmental efforts today do not seem to be all that different from the 1800s: corruption, bloated governments leeching off donors, lack of social accountability between government and people. The list goes on.
Arguably, many of these problems could be fixed if donors adopted more of a "bottom-up" approach: giving recipients more say in donor targets, funding and project development.
Fortunately, as ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology for Development) becomes more sophisticated, the development field has this option. Combined with social media and access to technology, particularly Internet and cell-phones, we have new development tools that encourage and allow beneficiaries to participate more actively in the development process.
Take Twitter as one example.
When used right, Twitter is a powerful viral experience. For example, I recently came back to Nairobi to find out that someone had swiped my running shoes from my suitcase. A friend posted a complaint on Twitter linked to @kenyairways. Suddenly, I had Kenya Airways emailing me an apology and helping me through the necessary claim steps. Public shaming goes a long way.
In other words, Twitter is a cheap and efficient multi-way street: you get to publicize your corporation. At the same, you face aggregated public criticism head-on. You respond to it publicly. You show your customers or critics that you can have a dialogue and that you respect their opinions. You sell a type of corporate "democratic accountability:" people are free to bring up their complaints in public. In return, you get free consumer advice that you can address in public, therefore increasing people's trust (not to mention boosting their ego by showing you take their concerns to heart).
NGOs work like corporations (except they are more criticism-averse). They need to sell their projects to get more donor funding. Their success—unless they have unlimited funding—needs to be made public.
This is reason enough to get on Twitter: a way to reach the public with your project’s successes. Beyond that, Twitter facilitates this same "democratic accountability" between beneficiaries, the organization and other critics. Beneficiaries, equipped with Internet accessing cell-phones, can comment on the project’s progress. The targeted organization can absorb this feedback and organize effectively. Other development critics can spot unearthed flaws.
Social media and the spread of technology are one of the bigger changes in development two centuries after Tolstoy. While both are under-utilized by large development corporations, they have the potential to turn development and aid into a more bottom-up rather than top-down approach.
Of course, all this social media and “techno-enthusiasm” requires organizations to actually take action and change.
The first step is for large donor-dependent organizations to realize that public criticism is an asset - they need it to improve their development models and engage individual donors.
Secondly, donors need to realize that people want to understand aid and development and therefore a public dialogue on their funding and expenditure is necessary and informative.
Thirdly, no matter how worldly their experience or how many years they have spent in development institutions and high-priced universities, development officials need to realize that beneficiaries know best. A community is an intricate web that no one, unless raised within it, can truly understand.