Change Hurts

There has been an interesting blogosphere discussion of crowdsourcing in the last few days. The usual crew of people who think about aid – this time humanitarian response in specific – seem to be polarizing slowly into pro and anti-crowdsourcing camps. I linked you to the calmest posts there. There are positions staked out all the way along the spectrum from “crowdsourcing is evil and will hurt innocent people” to “crowdsourcing is going to change the world all by itself.”

As always, I’m somewhere in the middle on this. Crowdsourcing is just a tool. It’s not a miracle cure for anything. It’s a good tool, and sooner or later most competent emergency response groups will find a way to use it. Some will be early adopters, some will trail in at the end. Eventually it’ll get trendy with donors and everyone will start mentioning crowdsourcing in proposals, whether they have a decent plan for it or not.  (I’d also like to point out the remarkable similarity between the rhetoric on crowdsourcing and the discussion of the last big miracle, microfinance.)

But this post isn’t actually about crowdsourcing. It’s about change.

Look, we all know international aid is a mess. The system is not selecting for efforts that work. Bad programs get rewarded. Useless programs get extended. Good programs vanish for no apparent reason.

There are a whole lot of reasons that aid doesn’t really work. Personally, I like to blame democratically elected governments and their need to control where taxpayer money goes.* You can also look at international politics, the challenges of data collection in poor countries, and the sheer complexity of the system. Just for a start.

Anyway, everyone who works in this field knows it’s deeply flawed. The chance to work for an effort that really works is like gold. It’s what we all dream of. We cling like barnacles when we find it. Because it’s too rare. (Too rare, but does happen. Let me make that clear. A broken system means inefficiency, not utter failure. There are development efforts that succeed, and we don’t want to lose them. That’s one reason that feelings run so high.)

Something has to give. We can’t make this broken system keep flailing along forever. Heck, even Rajiv Shah knows it. And when the system changes, it’s going to hurt everyone invested in the status quo. I don’t know if it’s going to be a formal system shift like Cash on Delivery aid, or a disruptive innovation born of some technical advance. But it’s going to hurt, and everyone that’s part of the current system is going to struggle to adjust.

So when tempers flare over whether SMS messaging has actually been proven to save lives, I think what we’re really looking at is fear and hope. Is this the disruptive innovation that’s going to change everything? And if it is, is that good or bad? What if the change makes a flawed system worse?

* No, I am not arguing for dictatorship. But I am saying that most democratically elected representatives aren’t going to be aid experts, and they do control the purse strings. This leads to inevitable mess.


photo credit: fd

Chosen because barnacles were the only decent visual in the whole blog post.