Monthly Archives: June 2007

Italy’s buffoon

Beppe Grillo

To the outside observers, Italy is a country of majestic artworks, stunning landscapes, beautiful cities and delicious food. But to the insiders, all these appear trivial amenities compared to the ever-present decay of the country’s public and private sectors. Corruption is still rampant, despite the bout of inquiries and arrests that characterized the 1990s. Politicians and businessmen are often embroiled in obscure dealings surrounding company takeovers, sales or mergers. No one is ever found guilty, and even if someone is, the likes of him (for it is always a man) ending up in prison are pretty slim.

Given this picture, you would expect most media-savvy journalists to be up in arms, ready to seize the opportunity given by a political or commercial scandal to uncover some dirt, clean up the nation, and become rich and famous along the way. Instead, the tightly controlled Italian media (either in the hands of former PM Silvio Berlusconi, or under the watchful eye of the major political parties in power) appear generally more interested in the sexual habits of the country’s many showgirls, or in the latest fashion trends. Scandals gain complexity over time, like in the case of Parmalat’s collapse, and slowly become incomprehensible to the layman. People end up loosing interest in the matter. Eventually the spotlight turns to another scandal and a dark fog of silence descends on the entire affair. This way, the show can go on.

Not many people dare speak the truth, but one such man is Beppe Grillo. A comedian by profession, Grillo has long ago embarked on a crusade to do what other journalists don’t do: point an angry finger at those who are responsible for the ruinous state of the country. Banned for obvious reasons from performing on television, he has turned to the internet – and in particular to his blog, which Technorati ranks among the world’s 20 most visited blogs – to reach an even wider and more politically-motivated audience. Bloomberg’s Flavia Krause-Jackson and Chiara Remondini have written an excellent piece about his efforts to uncover bad management practices in Italy’s major companies.

“There are signs the public backlash against the excesses of public officials has started to effect change in Italy. Prime Minister Prodi, who met with Grillo shortly after winning the 2006 election, cut his own annual pay by 30 percent to 86,102 euros ($115,575), and extended the reductions to 102 ministers, deputies and undersecretaries. Italy’s ruling classes will need more than lower salaries to restore their reputations. That may explain why many of the 81 shows Grillo has scheduled for concert halls and small-town football stadiums this year have sold out.”

While in today’s colloquial language a buffoon denotes a ridiculous yet amusing person, in the Middle Ages the court jester performed an important political role, that of using irony and humorous metaphors to reprimand the king on his errors and advise him on policy matters. It was accepted norm that the buffoon should not be punished for his statements, for no one else was in a position to speak so bluntly to the ruler, lest he be charged with treason. Grillo is in every sense a modern buffoon, whose jests and mocking accusations should be heard more often by the Italian ruling and ruled classes alike.

From Development 1.0 to Development 2.0

The Future - CG4TV

FreePint printed this article by Giulio Quaggiotto and Pierre Wielezynski – both linked to/working for the World Bank – on how Web 2.0 is changing the face of development. This is the first article of its kind, as far as I know, and it’s also the subject of my dissertation here at the London School of Economics and Political Science, so I am glad I’ll be one of the pioneers on the subject. It’s in fact more than this: it’s a manifesto for the future of development. 

I am reproducing the article below for your perusal. It’s an excellent and most comprehensive review of the subject, and I thoroughly recommend it.

The transition from Development 1.0 to Development 2.0

One interesting aspect – which is sometimes forgotten – behind O’Reilly Media’s coining of the term ‘Web 2.0‘ is that it stemmed from an analysis of the companies that survived the crash of the dot-com bubble. Not so much of a futuristic vision, then, but rather a reflection on tried and tested business models (as well as technologies) that weathered the storm to produce the likes of Google and Amazon.

What if one were to apply the same type of analysis to the development sector? One could argue that we are currently witnessing a crisis of the traditional aid and international governance models, which could have far-reaching consequences somewhat reminiscent of the dot-com crash. At the same time, the emergence of new approaches (such as microfinance and online campaigning) may herald the beginning of a whole brave new world – indeed, it would seem that the era of the wisdom of crowds and the Long Tail, as defined by O’Reilly, has caught on in the non-profit world. Out with Development 1.0, the era of the World Bank, the UN, the IMF (but also the traditional non-governmental organisations (NGOs)), and in with Development 2.0, whose ambassador could perhaps be Grameen Bank, funded by Noble Prize winner Muhammud Yanus, or Gapminder’s founder Hans Rosling with his iconoclastic zeal to deconstruct established development myths.

Intriguing as the prospect of identifying clear-cut boundaries might be, the reality is that it’s probably too early to tell whether we are truly witnessing the emergence of a new development paradigm (see here for a similar conclusion). Rather, we are in a fluid, transition phase where traditional NGOs and development institutions are testing the waters of Web 2.0, while, on the more innovative end of the spectrum, new start-ups are emerging whose entire business model is based on Web 2.0 opportunities. Somewhere in the middle are ‘hybrid’ projects that span the two worlds. For instance, Oxfam’s recent campaign to support Ethiopian farmers featured traditional campaigning tools such as faxes, postcards and demonstrations, but also shared pictures via Flickr and a YouTube duel with Starbucks.

Take a look at the interactive list of the ’59 Smartest Orgs Online’, which ranks non-profits based on their ‘Web 2.0 smarts’ – the extent to which they integrated Web 2.0 in their business model. On any given day, it will feature established organisations such as Greenpeace or Amnesty International, alongside the likes of MobileActive.org (‘cell phones for civic engagement’) or microloans site Kiva. Indeed, the list is perhaps the best place to test the pulse of ‘Development 2.0′, together with Change.org‘s intriguing tag cloud.

If it’s too early to talk about winners or losers, it’s still interesting to apply O’Reilly’s model of key Web 2.0 patterns and competencies to the development world. It may highlight emerging trends and identify areas that may be waiting for the birth of a Google equivalent for the development sector.

The Long Tail of development services

O’Reilly invites Web 2.0-savvy companies to ‘reach out to the entire web, to the edges and not just the centre, to the Long Tail and not just the head’. The emblem here is eBay. This concept has interesting applications in the development context. Traditionally, managing micro-donations has proven to be challenging for non-profits, whose back end was not designed to guarantee to, say, a donor in the UK, that their money will go to found a specific project in a given village in Rwanda. ‘Adopt a school’ type of projects have often incurred very high overheads. In come the likes of Kiva.org, which uses the Web to cut out intermediaries and allow for direct donations to small businesses in the developing world, or GlobalGiving, which guarantees that ’85-90% of your donation gets to local project leaders within 60 days’. This way, even donors with niche interests can find a way to support the cause that is dear to their heart through the Web. The same desire to cater for niche interests lies behind Change.org, a social networking site that aims to foster ‘a fundamental change in the way people engage in social issues’ by allowing grassroots activists to network with others who share their interests. It will be interesting to monitor how these new business models will fare and, on the other hand, how traditional NGOs will react to the challenge.

The race for development data

What do Amazon, eBay and MapQuest have in common? They are backed up by the largest specialised database in their respective markets (books, auctions, maps, etc), O’Reilly observes. For this reason, he adds, ‘the race is on to own certain classes of core data’. The smartest companies are the ones who let users add value to their data through mashups or other types of interaction (e.g. book reviews on Amazon). Once again, there are intriguing parallels here with what is happening in the development world. Take, for instance, conservation – an area traditionally plagued by the lack of data interoperability. A number of initiatives are emerging, such as IUCN-backed Conservation CommonsEco-ishare that are trying to encourage open access to biodiversity data and build the biggest repositories in their category, to use O’Reilly’s language. Others, such as the above mentioned Gapminder and Maplecroft are adding value to their sets of development data through visualisation software (Gapminder’s so cool that Google had to get a piece of it). As for mashups, an example of an application with great potential that we’ve come across recently is a combination of Google Earth with meteorological data. Imagine for a moment the weather forecast being delivered to farmers in Ethiopia, specially trained for the purpose, via mobile phones, as in Wepoco’s plans. But see also the combination of Google Maps and ethnicity data done by Healthcarethatworks to prove that disenfranchised communities have more difficulty accessing care. and UNEP-WCMC’s

Letting users interact and play around with the data, ‘trusting them as co-developers’, (O’Reilly) is still a cultural challenge, as Gapminder’s Rosling found out, but the obvious next step. One could easily imagine, for example, that WWF’s recent partnership with Google, which allows virtual access to conservation projects on the ground may be followed by some interactive feature that allows scientists or volunteers on the ground to add or comment on the data. Ditto for the work Amnesty International has done with Google Earth, mapping out human rights abuses around the world (more here).

Getting datasets out of their respective databases is certainly a challenge due to intellectual property issues and data interoperability, but if the various owners of these datasets were willing to do it, the very 2.0 site Swivel would be the ideal place to get some collaboration going. After barely 4 months of activity, the site (still in beta) already offers over 3,000 datasets contributed by over 4,000 members (including OECD) and has all the 2.0 features you can dream off: blog it, digg it, badge it, Google widgetise-it, etc.

Harnessing collective intelligence

The key principle behind the giants of the Web 2.0 era, points out O’Reilly, is that they have embraced the power of the Web to harness collective intelligence. What better example than Wikipedia? NGOs in this respect would seem to have a natural advantage over the private sector, given their traditional reliance on volunteers’ passion and creativity. And Development 2.0 is creeping into perhaps unexpected areas of the development sector. It may come as no surprise to learn that the likes of Greenpeace and Oneworld have their own blog. Perhaps not many people, though, may know that the World Bank Group is running three blogs (as well as online discussions) and has recently developed Buzzmonitor, a tool to gauge stakeholder’s perceptions through social media. And what about UNICEF’s sponsoring of The One Minutes Jr. site, the YouTube equivalent that gives a voice to marginalised young people?

Campaigns, as in the case of Oxfam above, are the obvious place to harness Web 2.0 to create connections and galvanise supporters (readers may be interested in an interesting think piece by the author of ‘Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age‘). Online campaigning is by now a well established advocacy tool in the armament of the smart NGO campaigner. See here for a list of examples and here for an illustration of how EWG is using volunteer support to build an online database of labels for their water safety project.

But this natural affinity doesn’t mean that all opportunities have been explored. Far from it, one can only imagine what would happen if the development sector were able to fully galvanise the ‘wisdom of crowds’ in support of its goals. One has to love the interactivity of Amnesty’s Guantanamo campaign, which allows users to create a virtual alter ego and join an online flotilla to the US base in Cuba. But what if you were to take this one step further? What if, as in the case of WWF Russia’s strategy game to save the leopard, you create a full- scale simulation of a real conservation challenge, let users compete to come up with their best solution and then use it in the real world? Likewise, one likes to think that it is it just a matter of time before an NGO (or development institution) will use a tool like Second Life or equivalent to interact with funds recipients to jointly create a virtual version of an ideal project scenario before funding it.

Joi Ito, a prominent venture capitalist, has written an interesting paper entitled “weblogs and emergent democracy” where he outlines how blogs and other 2.0 technologies will help shape democracy. Yochai Benkler has written a riveting book (available free online) titled “The Wealth of Networks”, in which he explains and documents how peer productions are changing markets and freedom. The arguments used by these two authors revolve around the network effect. How can an issue go from obscure to front page in a matter of five links and lead people to act and change things? A site like dotherightthing.com leverages the wisdom of the crowd to evaluate corporations and hold them accountable. By asking users to vote, tag or flag issues, these sites hope to become forces of change and get organisation to, well … do the right thing. A similar issue aims at doing the same for the US government. GovTracks mashes up various information sources to help regular citizens track their elected officials, key legislative issues, voting records etc.

If these initiatives do not yet have huge visibility, they are a model of the things to come.

Making a difference, in hard, cold cash: the Long Tail of micro-donations

And finally, what about fundraising? Raising awareness, having conversations around development issues and sharing photos could be labelled the first wave of 2.0 applied to development. But what if there was something much more tangible (money for example) coming?

Over 3 years ago, Fred Wilson, a popular blogger and venture capitalist out of New York City decided to sign up for the AdSense program offered by Google and to contribute the revenue generated by his traffic to the Grameen Bank. Small step, yes. But scale that up and it could make for a significant amount of cash for various social causes.

See also GoodSearch, which helps monetise traffic much in the same way most site do, via advertising, except that, here again, a portion of the revenues are contributed back to social causes. Even Microsoft launched their own program, labeled I’M. The idea is that a portion of the advertising revenue generated by users of the Live Messengers IM software would be allocated to social causes.

There is something more than just a gimmick here. As it becomes increasingly easier to put your money where you mouth is, why not think about fundraising through Linked In and other social networks where you put your money on causes that you, your friends and the rest of the crowd filtered and recommended for you?

The very secretive Project Agape seems to want to do something along those lines by ‘applying virality to altruism’. No specific details are available at the time of writing but given that the founder was behind Napster and Facebook, a healthy dose of ‘sociality’ is to be expected.

More to come

We have seen that many of the initial uses of Web 2.0 were focused on raising awareness around issues by leveraging word of mouth. We also discussed a second wave where applications and sites are more focused on getting people to collaborate, and a third wave focused on monetising traffic and attention to support social causes. Given the short time frame in which these three phases have happened, and given the increasing pressure on governments, international organisations and large NGOs to be more transparent, there is little doubt that much is yet to come.

As our world increasingly looks like a village, as new information sources become available and as more people get connected (see “The Internationalisation of Web 2.0“), it is inevitable that new, revolutionary applications will spring up and take the development sector by storm. The challenge therefore for existing 1.0 players like the World Bank and the United Nations is not to decide whether they should ‘comply’ to Web 2.0 but to actually embrace the technology and principles and maintain (or redefine) their relevance. Medium to large size non-profits also need to ask themselves questions about their relevance in this highly competitive, highly fragmented environment. How can they invest in technology, people and applications, not to be cool but to leverage their competitive advantage (be it their donors, knowledge, data or assets)? Smaller non-profits have proven the most innovative so far in their use of 2.0 and the question arises whether they will still be able to compete for attention once the entire sector has moved to this brave new world. The upcoming Web2fordev conference, hosted by FAO, looks like an interesting place to get the discussion going.


Giulio Quaggiotto <gquaggiotto@ifc.org> is the Programme Officer, Knowledge and Innovation at the IFC, the private sector arm of the World Bank Group. His interests include social network analysis, integration of KM in business processes and the link between KM and sustainability.

Pierre Guillaume Wielezynski <pwielezynski@worldbank.org> is a member of the World Bank’s Central Web Team, where he focuses on audience measurement, marketing strategy and social media. He designed and supervised the development of the buzzmonitor, the first open-source social media aggregator.

Store Wars

Store Wars 

In a pause in the endless series of exams I seem to be enduring these days, here’s an excellent use of the Internet and creative imagination to promote organic products: the Store Wars animation.

A similar – and equally funny – idea to that of the Meatrix, which also takes inspiration from a movie to promote messages about farming and organic production methods!

So when is organic food going to cost less, so we can all afford it?

The end of Coca-Cola?

Arabic Coca Cola 

Dana Milbank writes a scathing report about yesterday’s press conference by the Sudanese ambassador to the US in response to President Bush’s new sanctions against his country, criticised as overdue by Human Rights Watch:

A dozen reporters, and a similar number of Sudanese Embassy officials, watched the ambassador for an hour as he shouted into the microphone and delivered a circular and rambling complaint about the injustice of U.S. sanctions. His fingers, fists and arms flew through the air, exposing the flashy gold watch on his wrist.

Dana goes on to dismiss the laughable idea that Sudan might halt its exports of gum arabic, hence depriving the world of a crucial component in the production of Coca-Cola:

What’s more, the good and peaceful leaders of Sudan were prepared to retaliate massively: they would cut off shipments of the emulsifier gum arabic, thereby depriving the world of cola. “I want you to know that the gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country,” the ambassador said after raising a bottle of Coca-Cola. A reporter asked if Sudan was threatening to “stop the export of gum arabic and bring down the Western world.” – “I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this,” Khartoum Karl warned anew, beckoning to the Coke bottle. “But I don’t want to go that way.”

Dana would probably laugh less if he realised that gum arabic is indeed a prime export of Sudan, which was responsible for 56% of the $90 million-worth world trade in 2000. The rest came from Chad and Nigeria, two countries which cannot be said to be the most peaceful in the world, and where production can be seriously hampered by local political upheavals and conflict too.

It is unlikely that Sudan will halt production altogether, since millions of its citizens depend directly or indirectly on this product. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect Sudan to retaliate against the US by dramatically increasing the price of the product, in very much the same fashion as OPEC did in 1973 thanks to its monopoly on oil production. Moreover, the protracted conflict in Darfur – one of the prime spots for the cultivation of gum arabic – is already seriously affecting exports, and price increases are a realistic expectation.

Since no one really knows the exact formula of Coca-Cola, except for its two top executives, Coke aficionados might rest in peace for the time being, especially since Wikipedia does not list gum arabic as one of the suspected ingredients. But should gum arabic be present in even little quantities – like in most soft drinks – expect to pay quite a lot more for your fizzy drink in the near future.

Sachs on China’s lessons for the World Bank

Posters decorating Beijing during the China-Africa summit 2007

Jeffrey Sachs depicts a clear and concise picture of why the World Bank has got it all wrong and why China is getting it all right in Africa on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. He is mostly right – structural adjustment programmes have devastated African economies and if anything caused a surge in that very corruption that the World Bank blames as the cause of its failures.

Yet, one thing Jeffrey doesn’t quite explain is why China is acting like a Samaritan in Africa, dispensing sound advice alongside investment in infrastructures. Still, an excellent read, which I am reproducing below.

China’s lessons for the World Bank
As the World Bank clings to its free-market ideology, China is providing more practical help for developing countries.

The China Daily recently ran a front-page story recounting how Paul Wolfowitz used threats and vulgarities to pressure senior World Bank staff. The newspaper noted that Wolfowitz sounded like a character out of the mafia television show The Sopranos. At the same time, while the Wolfowitz scandal unfolded, China was playing host to the Africa Development Bank (ADB), which held its board meeting in Shanghai. This is a vivid metaphor for today’s world: while the World Bank is caught up in corruption and controversy, China skilfully raises its geopolitical profile in the developing world.China’s rising power is, of course, based heavily on its remarkable economic success. The ADB meeting took place in the Pudong district, Shanghai’s most remarkable development site. From largely unused land a generation ago, Pudong has become a booming centre of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, parks, industry, and vast stretches of apartment buildings. Shanghai’s overall economy is currently growing at around 13% per year, thus doubling in size every five or six years. Everywhere there are startups, innovations, and young entrepreneurs hungry for profits.I had the chance to participate in high-level meetings between Chinese and African officials at the ADB meetings. The advice that the African leaders received from their Chinese counterparts was sound, and much more practical than what they typically get from the World Bank.

Chinese officials stressed the crucial role of public investments, especially in agriculture and infrastructure, to lay the basis for private-sector-led growth. In a hungry and poor rural economy, as China was in the 1970s and as most of Africa is today, a key starting point is to raise farm productivity. Peasant farmers need the benefits of fertiliser, irrigation, and high-yield seeds, all of which were a core part of China’s economic takeoff.

Two other critical investments are also needed: roads and electricity, without which there cannot be a modern economy. Farmers might be able to increase their output, but it won’t be able to reach the cities, and the cities won’t be able to provide the countryside with inputs. The officials stressed how the government has taken pains to ensure that the power grid and transportation network reaches every village in China.

Of course, the African leaders were most appreciative of the next message: China is prepared to help Africa in substantial ways in agriculture, roads, power, health, and education. And the African leaders already know that this is not an empty boast. All over Africa, China is financing and constructing basic infrastructure. During the meeting, the Chinese leaders emphasised their readiness to support agricultural research as well. They described new high-yield rice varieties, which they are prepared to share with their African counterparts.

All of this illustrates what is wrong with the World Bank, even aside from Wolfowitz’s failed leadership. Unlike the Chinese, the bank has too often forgotten the most basic lessons of development, preferring to lecture the poor and force them to privatise basic infrastructure, rather than to help the poor to invest in infrastructure and other crucial sectors.

The bank’s failures began in the early 1980s, when, under the ideological sway of President Ronald Reagan and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, it tried to get Africa and other poor regions to cut back or close down government investments and services. For 25 years, the bank tried to get governments out of agriculture, leaving impoverished peasants to fend for themselves. The result has been a disaster in Africa, with farm productivity stagnant for decades. The bank also pushed for privatisation of national health systems, water utilities, and road and power networks, and grossly underfinanced these critical sectors.

This extreme free-market ideology, also called “structural adjustment”, went against the practical lessons of development successes in China and the rest of Asia. Practical development strategy recognises that public investments – in agriculture, health, education, and infrastructure – are necessary complements to private investments. The World Bank has instead wrongly seen such vital public investments as an enemy of private-sector development.

Whenever the bank’s extreme free-market ideology failed, it has blamed the poor for corruption, mismanagement, or lack of initiative. This was Wolfowitz’s approach, too. Instead of focusing the bank’s attention on helping the poorest countries to improve their infrastructure, he launched a crusade against corruption. Ironically, of course, his stance became untenable when his own misdeeds came to light. The bank can regain its relevance only if it becomes practical once again, by returning its focus to financing public investments in priority sectors, just as the Chinese leadership is prepared to do.

The good news is that African governments are getting the message on how to spur economic growth, and are also getting crucial help from China and other partners that are less wedded to extreme free-market ideology than the World Bank. Many African governments at the Shanghai meeting declared their intention to act boldly, by investing in infrastructure, agricultural modernisation, public health, and education.

The Wolfowitz debacle should be a wake-up call to the World Bank: it must no longer be controlled by ideology. If that happens, the bank can still do justice to the bold vision of a world of shared prosperity that prompted its creation after the second world war.