Web2fordev one year after – a critical review

9/9/2008 | Christian Kreutz

Most of my readers know how enthusiastic I am about the potential that Internet has; being this either social web, social media, web2.0 or however you want to name it. But if I look back at what has happened in the development field during the last year, I have to say that frankly I am quite disappointed about how little has been happening. I expected the disruptive potential to be more exploited. Particularly in development organizations hardly anything has changed, and the wave of open networks, transparency or the two way conversation is rather a ripple.

Little innovation from development organizations I remember the participants' enthusiasm during last year's web2fordev conference in Rome and I have also seen some interesting initiatives since, but the strong push towards taking advantage of the potential is not there. Critically, you can say that yes, the world bank has been playing a little bit around with blogs, UNHCR celebrates itself with Google map for fundraising, and Eldis has now a community, as well as Development Gateway has now ratings for articles, but here, in Germany, I cannot even find one convincing example from dozens of organizations working in the development field. But I know these are at least some first steps.

What are the reasons? I think the challenges especially within the organizational context are multi fold. Just to name a few:

  • Technical challenges: Almost all development organizations rely on software systems, which do not offer social media tools. Sharepoint is just one example of how it will never work to have an open knowledge sharing environment.
  • Being it the communication department, the IT or any other departments - many share their refusal to a participative web. Staff should be offered to decision themselves what to published and which tools to use. No way! – for some people the social web scenario is still a nightmare.
  • It is not on their screens! Most key players or management teams have not yet understood the potential of the web in total, although development organizations work internationally and engage in numerous networks. The Internet is still seen as a necessary evil. Generation gap?
  • No real commitment for donor harmonization. One key pillar of aid effectiveness should be to exchange knowledge as open and transparent as possible. There are hardly any attempts to open data resources between organizations and for the public domain. Most content is still copyright, although it is for non-profit.
  • Adaptation: It simply takes much more time. The learning curve of organization all together is simply really slow. The slower the bigger the organizations are.
  • Open knowledge sharing is still not high on the agenda. Information silos are common and knowledge is kept closed north and south of the development field.
  • The fear and distress to engage online, plus information overload and too little training for staff to show the potential to publish and exchange knowledge in networks.
  • Too little interest to engage in dialogue and recognize the importance of local knowledge. User-generated content means that I also am able to listen as an organization.

What could be different? A will to go public with the work, knowledge and problems of development organizations. Instead, they sat around in Ghana for aid effectiveness and have achieved so little. One step would be to acknowledge that problems are too complex, open channels of organization and use new ways to work together. Being it a Wikipedia for development or different sub themes such as Water wiki. But knowledge is preserved and kept in organizations. Information sources should be combined from different perspectives, instead, each organizations has its own websites. There is not even an attempt to combine data resources between bigger organizations. If you look for instance, the wisdom of crowd potential is not yet exploited. For project development or problem solution, hardly anything has been tested or experimented. In recent years amazing market and exchange places in all kinds of fields have been established, but the development sector still offers very little.  I will elaborate that further in another post.

An explanation In my opinion the easiest explanation is that the social innovation within or through the web flourishes best in open autonomous environments. This can be rarely offered in an organizational context. If you look at the most fascinating projects and initiatives of the last year, since the web2fordev conference, you will see that they are all grass root driven – mobile phones in Africa, human rights issues, citizen journalism, mashups or networks for development. So I wonder what could then be the role of development organizations to participate in the social innovation? How do you think web2.0 in development organizations will progress? Do you agree with the above statement or was I too critical?