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Why reinvent the wheel?


July 19, 2010

James Elrick
Marcom Specialist

I just finished reading an interesting article on the NYT’s website titled “Digital Diplomacy“. The article describes how Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, two employees of the US State department, are using Twitter and other tools to break new ground in using social media technology in the normally staid government. The article covers a lot of material, such as how they helped set up the Text Haiti 90999 program hours after the earthquake so that people could make $10 donations which raised more than $40 million for the Red Cross, and how they worked with a major telecom company in Mexico to allow people to SMS anonymously to report crimes. But there was one section in the article that needs commenting: It’s where the two travelled on a delegation to Silicon Valley, held meetings with various companies, and also met with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google and dozens of Google employees. Here’s the section from the NYT’s article:

“After the fireside chat, Schmidt sat in on a meeting with (the company’s nonprofit arm) in which Ross and Cohen described the difficulty U.S. embassies have in keeping track of services and resources in countries where the U.S. hopes to spur development — tracking, for example, nongovernmental organizations in Kenya. 

“It would be fascinating to transform one of our embassies,” Cohen said, “and see if we can create a virtual aspect to make it a one-stop shop for everything that’s out there.”

“NGOs keep asking for a way to be able to understand, in a country like Kenya, who’s doing clean water, who’s doing education,” one Google employee said.

Several engineers chirped back and forth about the virtues of user-generated feedback and the challenges of multilayer mapping technology, until Schmidt cut them off. “We have a big operation in Kenya,” Schmidt said. “We have the smartest guy in the country working for us. Why can’t we just do this?””

Well, you could Mr. Schmidt, but why reinvent the wheel? If you have the smartest guy in the country, hopefully he is smart enough to realize that he doesn’t have to design and develop something from scratch in order to track “who’s doing clean water, who’s doing education”. And there is much, much more to track as aid agencies and NGO’s provide numerous services to help alleviate poverty and improve economic situations.

My suggestion to “the smartest guy” is that he directs his attention to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). Why? Because the IATI brings together donors, partner countries and civil society to enhance aid effectiveness by improving transparency. The IATI also helps reduce corruption, increase cooperation and improve aid effectiveness. Aid transparency means that everyone can see how much aid is being provided, what it is being spent on (water, education), and what it aims to achieve. This helps ensure that aid is used in the most effective ways, so that each dollar, euro, pound, yen goes as far as possible in fighting poverty. And the IATI is working towards aid transparency all over the world.

So what’s most troubling to everyone at the fireside chat is that nobody knows exactly where the donor money is coming from and where it’s being distributed and used. As mentioned in a previous blog post, “in addition to using country systems, donors and recipient governments need to harmonize aid and report it. This is the goal of the NGO, Publish What You Fund, one of the most active participants in IATI.” And by quoting that text, I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.


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Matthew Olivier

Matthew Olivier

Vice President, Marketing at FreeBalance
Matthew is responsible for providing strategic marketing, communication, and business development direction for FreeBalance products, solutions and services. Matthew leads marketing and business development activities to support FreeBalance growth and brand awareness in the GRP market.
Matthew Olivier

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