by Hans Peter Schmitz, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Leadership Studies, University of San Diego
Social media is rapidly transforming the international nonprofit sector by changing how organizations engage with their supporters and those they seek to serve. Dissatisfied with traditional aid and advocacy efforts, many new groups have emerged claiming to be more effective, efficient, and accountable. While many of these efforts are promising, there are still plenty of challenges for these initiatives. Digital-based activism does not automatically avoid the traditional trappings of development aid and international advocacy.
What sets compelling aid and advocacy efforts apart is not their use of technologies per se and their ‘hipness factor,’ but a well-developed theory of change translated into compelling tactics, good internal governance, and sustained accountability to those beneficiaries that are at the center of an organization’s efforts. Social media and new technologies primarily solve collective action problems by providing new and cheaper ways of connecting like-minded individuals. These new opportunities push social innovation by adding peer-to-peer funding and supporter-led activism to traditional service delivery, resource transfers and global advocacy. However, digitally-enabled activism does not in itself make international aid and advocacy more effective and accountable.
Service delivery and resource transfers
Traditional aid groups including Oxfam, WorldVision, or MercyCorps are joined by a set of new actors whose primary focus is on creating more direct connections between donors and recipients. Examples include kiva.org and other forms of do-it-yourself aid that claim to mobilize the power of crowdfunding to not only increase resources to fight poverty, but also eliminate overhead spending and avoid aid dependency. Although microfinance and other new aid models (e.g., cash transfers) can be an important part of economic development, many of the more deep-seated problems of global aid remain unresolved. Three such problems are:
First, the focus on reducing overhead spending is counterproductive since it fails to address the question of how effective program activities are. Rather than accepting the drive to reduce overhead, organizations should focus on educating their donors about the effectiveness (and struggles) of their programs. The core problem of advocacy and development efforts is the lack of interest and engagement of donors in programming. Technologies could be used to overcome the overhead myth and educate donors more about the effectiveness of program activities, but many of the new players simply avoid the issue and offer little innovation with regard to assessing and communicating their own effectiveness as well as how they learn over time to improve their programs.
Second, Kiva and others have yet to show that their work is actually effective and has sustainable impact. Some argue that it does not. There is no evidence that a focus on reducing overhead or the deployment of new technologies per se makes for better programming.
Third, even if some of these new modes of resource transfers are effective, the next question that arises is how to scale-up a successful intervention. New models of service delivery and resource transfer make positive contributions to the diversification of aid programs, but they all require developing long-term advocacy strategies capable of building winning political coalitions. No matter how much aid can be channeled through microfinance programs or cash programs, the real question is how poverty is ultimately eliminated and in what ways disenfranchised populations can be empowered to claim services from their own government rather than rely on external aid.
Advocacy and mobilization
Many efforts of social innovation focus on new forms of advocacy to complement resource transfers as a strategy for social change. Change.org, SumOfUs.org, and Avaaz.org represent new forms of digitally-enabled activism whose proponents claim that these platforms empower those excluded because of a lack of expertise, access, or financial means. Other advantages typically mentioned are the nimbleness of online activism and the independence from traditional funding sources.
Most importantly, these new platforms of activism claim to mobilize a much greater audience than older activist groups, an important measure of the popular legitimacy of advocacy demands. Change.org points to a membership of one hundred million compared to the seven million currently claimed by Amnesty International.
Although online platforms have captured a lot of public attention, the idea of petitioning those in power is hardly new. Questions of the effectiveness of such activism have been widely raised by critics. There is evidence that digital media only widens the gap between rich and poor and creates the illusion of meaningful citizen participation. There are also concerns that the primary focus on individual victims of abuse dominating change.org’s platform fails to translate into sustained social change.
Platforms do not perform their own research and lack expertise-based legitimacy as well as the capacity to mount a long-term or multi-level campaign. This is particularly troubling in the context of international advocacy where knowledge about local conditions cannot be replaced by large numbers of supporters.
Where do we go from here?
More promising paths of social innovation point towards using new technologies more directly in enabling citizens’ mobilization and linking online to offline activism. While kiva.org makes loans and change.org asks for little more than a click, there are growing efforts to provide more elaborate tool sets to activists seeking to connect across countries, planning to mobilize the public, or developing an effective grassroots campaign. Ushahidi represents a key example of this local mobilization approach and its focus on using technology to empower communities to hold their governments accountable. What sets these efforts apart from other social innovations in resource transfers and advocacy is the use of technology in community empowerment and self-organization, rather than more problematic international efforts to substitute for limited local resources and mobilization.