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A Meritocracy of Ideas in International Development

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As a relative late-comer to Twitter I had been hugely sceptical of what it could really add to my life. For a long time my adage was "if you can say it in 140 characters, it's probably not worth saying," (blame Aaron Sorkin for Jed Bartlet's adage of "ten words aren't enough in politics"). However, I was missing out on what Twitter is really all about - connecting people.

In a recent lecture honoring Joseph Nye, Anne-Marie Slaughter spoke about the change Twitter is driving in creating flatter, more interactive networks of individuals. In many ways the social media revolution is creating an evolution within soft power - now it's not just about our powers to convince, but our command over the digital media tools that enable us to convince people.

Ironically when I sat down to write this while still halfway through Slaughter's presentation, the first thing I jotted down was Ushahidi (which she touches on in the latter portion of her lecture). I first became aware of Ushahidi from a colleague during the Guinea 2010 Presidential election. It takes the proliferation of mobile phones and uses it to synthesise information from the population at large to create a real-time mapped dataset within a conflict or emergency zone. In reality this means that if someone is burning down your polling station, you can send an SMS and immediately have it appear on an alert website that is publicly available to journalists, security forces, election officials and everyone around the world. As Slaughter notes, this leads to empowerment of the individual.

Besides empowering ordinary members of a society, social media also gives a voice to junior members of organizations like never before. Most development organisations are still inherently hierarchical in nature. It is unlikely that you'll see a press conference delivered by a junior program officer, or program support officer. In reality these are quite often the people who possess the most intimate knowledge of problem areas in their organisations.

Twitter and other social media platforms allow these young professionals to connect, share lessons learned and perhaps even more importantly know that the problems they're dealing with are not theirs alone. Connecting these individuals now means that in years to come they will have a strong network of like-minded individuals they can call on for advice and input. Those in senior positions may also gain valuable insight from thinking about what they have to say. As Joseph Nye aptly puts it, in "The Powers to Lead" - a good idea can come from anyone, regardless of their level of experience.

Twitter provides just such a forum, where everything is based upon a meritocracy of ideas. Very quickly on any topic you can determine who trusted sources are. During the DRC 2011 Presidential election Laura Seay quickly rose to prominence due to the quality and timeliness of her coverage. Twitter allowed someone thousands of miles away to provide analysis and reporting on the election, and allowed me to relay things I was hearing from observers on the ground to other people outside DRC. Much like the course of the Vietnam War was changed by the instant broadcast of images from the conflict, now international affairs are scrutinised and commented on to a degree never before seen. In such a world policy could potentially be affected by one decision-maker reading the well thought out tweet of a layman.

Now we come to the crux of the issue - how do we apply the idea of flattening the hierarchy of power and communication to development. Connections are starting to form between aid organisation personnel in the field, but as yet we haven't cracked the most important question - how do we use the same tools to connect strategic program objectives to the desires of stakeholders on the ground?

Too many stories exist about aid organisations building schools in places with nomadic populations that sit empty for decades, and laptops being delivered to communities who don't have electricity, running water or hospitals. This all comes down to one fundamental error. Aid organisations failing to ask a community what they want and instead basing their programs on suppositions.

Finding a way to utilise social media tools to "convene, connect and catalyse" the wishes of stakeholders in development is going to be one of the biggest challenges facing the non-profit sector in the next decade. Solving this would not only allow aid to act more like a smart bomb than a cluster bomb, it would also provide instant feedback from regular citizens rather than convoluted top-down monitoring and evaluation logframes. Conflict resolution programs are notoriously hard to monitor, because the only reliable indicator for their success is "absence of conflict," (try telling that to a donor). However, if we shift towards a more grassroots level of feedback then we give interlocutors on the ground a chance to say "the non-violent protest workshop we asked for prevented a major clash between two party factions in Village X."

Even development reporting tends to be very top down in nature "here's what our program did and how it helped a community in the middle of nowhere". Instead why not give a community leader from a project a Flip camera and ask "did this project help? If not, why not?" A little less time spent thinking about how to measure aid effectiveness and a little more time listening to what aid recipients say wouldn't do us any harm. We need leaders at the nexus of hierarchical organizations and flatter information gathering processes to catalyze this feedback and roll it into program reform.

Disconcerting as it is to admit, the ultimate goal of any development organization should be to render a lot of its programming obsolete. As Maynard James Keenan (lead singer of Tool, A Perfect Circle) put it when talking about the artistic process - writing music is about dealing with some internal demon and trying to move past it. If you keep making the same music and staying in the same place emotionally, you must not be that good a musician. The same applies to development organisations. If a program has been open in a country for over a decade, doing the same thing, and nothing has changed - is the program effective? Maybe it's time we started affording the same level of respect to ideas from grassroots level stakeholders as we do to those donors in charge of funding aid delivery.