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Opinion: Time for a Wikipedia overseas aid policy

Financial Times

March 18, 2013

Opinion: Ricardo Hausmann, CID Faculty Director

No one could be against the eradication of poverty, the expansion of access to education or reductions in infant and maternal mortality. These are among the Millennium Development Goals, the international framework for aid co-ordination agreed by the UN in 2000. But the MDG framework itself is deeply flawed – as is the current work on a post-2015 agenda. They wrongly set the same goals for all countries and prescribe an ineffective co-ordination mechanism.

The MDG framework is a top-down design akin to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It should be superseded by a self-organising alternative, akin to Wikipedia. Britannica requires a master editor, who plans an overall structure and delegates sections to junior editors who commission expert authors to write entries. By contrast, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, allows anyone who follows some basic rules to make a contribution and to gain access to the information they need.

In 2000, the goals emerged from an expert consultation process and were endorsed by heads of state of almost 200 countries. Now, the UN is calling on people around the world to go online and vote for the “issues that matter most to them”, through the new platform – entitled "The World We Want." Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, recently told an international meeting that "our goal must be a single, coherent global agenda."

But why should we set the same goals for all the world’s developing countries? Is it not the role of democracy to empower citizens with the right to nominate problems and set goals? Why should my single vote count the same for Bolivia, Burkina Faso and Nepal? Should certain societies disregard housing, personal security or urban transport just because the MDGs do not include them? Should the Gates Foundation abandon its goal of eradicating polio, just because it did not make it into the MDGs? Should state and local governments emphasise the same goals as the national government?

The way the MDGs work is that recipient national governments are required to write a poverty-reduction strategy paper that is consistent with the goals. Then a round-table meeting with donors would be convened to work out who would help in what project – a rather Britannica-like approach.

The MDGs have advantages: they are a short list of eight objectives that fit nicely in our heads. But the world is not simple, and hiding complexity under the rug in the name of "forging a global partnership" is harmful and counterproductive.

What if, like Wikipedia, we allowed goals, as well as solutions, to emerge from the many stakeholders in each country, with their varied priorities? What if, instead of all of us agreeing on the same few static goals, we let them emerge from the interaction of donors, recipients and social movements?

This is not unlike the debate between central planning and self-organisation in the economy. Should we set goals and devise a plan? Or should we let sellers and buyers meet in a marketplace to co-ordinate on their own? Such an approach – Aid 2.0 – would let priorities emerge from the evolving realities, values and experiences of the many different actors, just as in the market, where goals are not preset.

Donors and recipients, if they are not corrupt, want to extract the biggest bang for their development buck, given what they think other donors and recipients are already doing – and this dynamic acts like an invisible hand.

The system would not be perfect. A more horizontal approach faces significant information and transaction costs. But that does not mean that policy makers should ban it. Instead, they should focus on helping this kind of self-organisation.

Together with Michele Coscia at Harvard University and César Hidalgo at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we have developed an online tool that can help donors and recipients find each other based on their shared interests. This is a contribution to what a 2.0 approach to aid could look like.

The goals of the MDGs are admirable. But so are many of the issues that have been left out, and there is no compelling reason why all countries should adopt the same aims. In a world where information and communication are easier than ever, there is a better way. It lies in a self-organised, interest-driven approach. Let’s embrace it.

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An introduction to the Aid Explorer online tool featured in Hausmann's article.

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The Structure and Dynamics of International Development Assistance

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