In one of his first presidential directives, President Obama called for more transparency, participation, and collaboration between the government and its people. The state of our democracy is under question because of money in politics, political inequality, and opaque backroom deal making that creates conflicts of interest in public policy. Advancements in technology and innovations like crowdsourcing, crowdvoting, and crowdfunding present an opportunity to improve the democratic process. The foreign aid process is ripe for improvement through these innovative technologies.

According to the United States Agency for International Development, U.S Official Development Assistance (ODA) totaled $30.8 billion in 2011. Top recipients included: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan, Iraq, Kenya, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Gaza, Haiti, and South Africa. Various sectors of aid disbursement include action relating to debt, administrative costs of donors, agriculture, construction, tourism, etc. Although this level of transparency might satisfy some, if the average voter sought to learn more about specific projects funded, they would have to sort through data scattered throughout USAID’s website.  

Transparency aside, there is no opportunity for a voter to choose which countries, which sectors, or which projects receive funding. Of course a concerned and active citizen could write and lobby their representative, but the time, bureaucracy, and inefficiencies of the current process are discouraging. On their website, USAID published its commitment to innovative transparency, but they may have overlooked or discounted some of the emerging opportunities to collaborate and participate with the citizens whose dollars actually pay for aid projects.  Recent technological innovations and the spread of social media have enabled crowdsourcing, crowdvoting, and crowdfunding as tools for further democratizing the foreign aid process.

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is a broad term that describes the collective action of many individual contributions pooled together to accomplish a larger goal. Within the context of foreign aid, it can be a tool for gathering technical expertise about a country, region, or an indigenous population from returned Peace Corps volunteers or former expatriates.

Crowdvoting

Crowdvoting will allow USAID to call for input from the voting population of the United States. The “crowd’s” input could be part of the decision making process in deciding which development projects get funded and/or which organization receives a particular grant. The details of proposed USAID projects should be publicized on the USAID’s dashboard. Voting citizens can then cast their vote for the project they believe their tax dollars should fund. Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, make outreach easy and cost effective, while crowdvoting capabilities can be integrated into the USAID’s current dashboard features.

Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding solicits contributions in various amounts from a multitude of people to fund a specific project. USAID projects could use crowdfunding to solicit funds from donors, philanthropists, and global-minded citizens as an additional source of funding. Crowdfunding can be used along with crowdvoting to give a project additional support from the grassroots level up, democratizing the entire foreign aid process.

Crowdfunding foreign aid may sound idealistic, but the basic concept is not as radical as you might think. In January 2013, House Bill HB314 was introduced in the Hawaiian State Legislature, calling for a proprietary crowdfunding platform exclusive to Hawaii. According to the bill, the proposed crowdfunding platform will allow “members of the public to [contribute] their own money toward the funding of specific public capital improvement projects and monitor the progress of those projects as they near completion.” This will create a truly transparent and collaborative process between the people of Hawaii and their state government. The US Agency for International Development has the opportunity to pioneer a similar process at the federal level.

One limitation of this argument is the scope excludes aid recipients. This recommendation focuses on improving transparency, collaboration, and participation between USAID and the voting population of the United States. It’s unlikely that these technologies will initially improve processes in the countries where aid is delivered. Policies that address the participation and input of host country nationals are still needed. Language and technological barriers constrain most regions that receive aid, making the implementation of these technologies on behalf of aid recipients currently infeasible.

There are also cyber security and fraud concerns. As the crowdfunding industry evolves, fraud concerns are becoming common and widespread. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the private sector are working to proactively implement safeguards. Cyber security and malicious intent are also concerns with the implementation of these processes into the USAID’s foreign assistance dashboard. However, such concerns are common across all federal agencies, and appropriate security measures should be included in the technology.

In addition, the general public is unaccustomed to this level of participation and collaboration in making foreign policy decisions, leading to a steep learning curve for public adoption of these technological practices. Formal public outreach will be necessary to promote and engage the new program. These efforts will take time, so the crowdvoting and crowdfunding platform should be rolled out in measurably-scaled pilot phases.