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    Participatory Philanthropy, Part II

    by David Sasaki
    September 1, 2008

    This is the second of a two-part piece which examines how participatory media can help streamline and democratize philanthropy. In the first post we saw three examples of how philanthropic foundations are relying on public input to help decide which proposals receive funding. This post will examine how participatory media can redefine the evaluation process after a project has already been funded by giving the targeted community a greater say in how the initiative has (or has not) had an impact on their lives.

    As far as development work goes, the Millennium Villages project based at Columbia University’s Earth Institute has something of the celebrity status of say Angelina Jolie or Bono, both of whom in fact have become public faces for the project, which provides a holistic aid package to 12 rural villages in 10 African countries. Other well-groomed and well-known supporters of the project include George Soros, Brad Pitt, Madonna, and the founder of the initiative, celebrity economist, Jeffrey Sachs.

    In fact, scanning the Millennium Villages’ news archive, it can seem as though just about everyone who is anyone has something to say about the experimental initiative in holistic development aid. Except, that is, the residents of the 12 targeted villages.

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    The success of the Millennium Villages project, like most development work, depends largely on who you’re willing to trust. Jeffrey Sachs is steadfast in his portrayal of the Millennium Villages as an unprecedented success in development aid. In a May 2007 article in Harper’s magazine, however, Victoria Schlesinger says that villages like Sauri, Kenya have in fact been receiving foreign aid for more than 15 years and that the Millennium Villages project comes down to re-branding a longtime effort that has little to show for itself. Sam Rich, a development consultant writing in the Wilson Quarterly, is much more measured in both his support and criticism of the project: “if Sauri is to become a useful model for development on a bigger scale, and not just another development expert’s white elephant, Sachs and others working on the project must acknowledge that they are still learning about Africa. Sauri is not yet a success.”

    So who do we believe? Is the Millennium Villages project the answer to solving world poverty or, as Schlesinger asserts, just another example of ‘continuing poverty’?

    The difficulty of finding unbiased voices about development and philanthropic projects is hardly limited to the Millennium Villages. NGO’s and non-profits – relying on continued support from donors, governments and philanthropies – are eager to cast their work in the most positive light possible. Likewise, donors want to know and to show that their investments are efficiently bringing about positive change.

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    This natural double bias has brought about an entire industry of independent evaluation consultants, almost all of whom are based in the United States and Western Europe. While an outside consultant can give us a less biased view of development projects, they still don’t have the historical and cultural context of the local community that is supposed to be benefiting from the investment.

    Philanthropies and donors should stop spending so much money on costly consultants and start funding participatory media training workshops so that the target communities themselves are ultimately responsible for judging the success of development and philanthropic projects.

    The Millennium Villages website frequently mentions the importance of local ownership to ensuring success, but local ownership does not come about unless locals are involved in the communication and evaluation process. Thanks to the increased accessibility of blogging, anyone with an internet connection or mobile phone is now able to participate in the international debate about any topic. Writing on the Communication Initiative Network, James Deane notes that the focus of next week’s major development aid conference in Ghana will be on getting local citizens, rather than national governments, to shape development policy. Similarly, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told a crowd at TED Global 2007 that development aid in Africa will only be a catalyst for change if individual Africans are the ones to collectively shape the priorities.

    Africa’s ever-growing blogosphere has already taken on development policy, most notably in last year’s “trade versus aid” debate. But for those discussions to be truly relevant, they need to take place among local voices at the local level; for example, among residents of the millennium village of Sauri, Kenya.

    Tagged: development kenya millennium villages philanthropy
    • Paul Lamb

      David: GREAT thoughts, and I agree that many Foundations could benefit from opening up the input process by which they make funding decisions. I also agree that using participatory media is a useful way to do that. Some cautions…assuming that people (particularly the beneficiaries) want in on the conversation is not always correct. AND training of targeted communities to use Web 2.0 tools is not always cheap or does it result in useful information. I have seen a number of “if you build it they will talk” projects where putting tools and training in the hands of targeted communities did not spark conversations or died pretty much after the trainers left the scene. Third, I think we need to be careful about manipulating target populations to provide “us” with the information that we want, and not focusing on how participants can use social media tools to benefit themselves – regardless if “we” get the information or results we expected.

      Of course Global Voices is an expert in addressing the latter, and raising up the voices of the voiceless, but others who focus their efforts purely on getting useful information may not be.

    • David,

      Though I share your emphasis when you say following my first response is a sense of caution.

      Philanthropies and donors should stop spending so much money on costly consultants and start funding participatory media training workshops so that the target communities themselves are ultimately responsible for judging the success of development and philanthropic projects.

      .. local ownership does not come about unless locals are involved in the communication and evaluation process.

      Africa will only be a catalyst for change if individual Africans are the ones to collectively shape the priorities.

      We will need more than technological infrastructure and training to practice participation. Absence of participatory culture at all levels of civil society is likely to become one of the biggest hurdles even when one is lucky to address challenge of access to web 2.0 technologies in many places in Africa.

      Despite explosive growth of the Net in many parts of the world we have yet to witness substantive growth in participation of civil society shaping priorities in local communities. Experiences of these countries should help us moderate our expectations while we encourage participation using participatory media.

      Participatory research and development are not new models. Adding new technologies doesn’t guarantee their success. One would need to consider many other factors beyond technologies to ensure contributions of local communities.

    • Building on Paul Lamb’s comment… Web 2.0 training and application may be a bit of a reach, but why not set up a call-in phone number where people from the targeted community can leave voice mails that automatically get posted on a website — even transcribed? In widely literate communities, text messages could work too. As I understand it a lot of these regions have fairly widely available cellphone access, but not so much with computers.

      I guess what I’m saying is that while a truly interactive Web 2.0 interface would be ideal, that if the main goal is to make it easy and automated for the recipients of philanthropy to give their thoughts and feedback, then starting with something that involves no learning curve for them may yield the best results.

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