Websites such as GlobalGiving and Kickstarter have re-imagined the way we support issues we care about. Can we do the same for aid programmes?

By: Blair Glencorse, Executive Director at Accountability Lab. This article was originally published by The Guardian.

Watermelon seeds are readied for planting as part of an aid project in Rwanda.

Watermelon seeds are readied for planting as part of an aid project in Rwanda. ‘There is a disconnect between the providers of development aid and its recipients.’ Photograph: Sam Faulkner/Comic Relief/Dfid

As world leaders descend on New York this week for the UN general assembly, the funding of international development programmes will be high on the agenda – given that efforts to meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs) are estimated to cost as much as $4.5tn (£3.4tn) annually – more than the US federal budget. Western aid agencies, led by committed staff on the ground, are doing everything they can to raise the funds needed to help people suffering from poverty and insecurity everywhere.

But there is a disconnect between the providers of development aid – which totaled $131 billion in 2015 – and its recipients. Despite our best efforts, there are many inefficiencies. The root of the problem is political. Donor countries allocate aid based only partly on need. Of equal or greater concern in many cases are foreign policy interests such as security, alliances, and historic or linguistic ties. Top recipients of US aid, for example, have consistently included such countries as Israel and Egypt alongside far poorer states.

Introducing crowdsourcing mechanisms into the aid business would overcome many of these problems and direct more funds to where they are most needed, wanted and effectively used. Such an approach could be inspired by popular sites such as GlobalGiving, Kickstarter and Indiegogo – the crowdfunding industry globally raised $34 billion last year.

Imagine a crowdfunding process for development aid led by people across the developing world. It could involve allowing these citizens to propose and vote on projects to be supported with aid funding. Development agencies could agree to place some proportion of their resources for a given country into a pooled fund. A government would then work with donors to match the allocated funds (to ensure adequate buy-in by the national authorities) and offer its people a platform to weigh in on how this money would be spent.

Citizens could themselves suggest, design and monitor projects that would be of greatest benefit, submit these to an online platform for potential support and even pledge their own resources (financial or human) to back their ideas. Meanwhile, the aid agencies and government ministries would provide or outsource management, oversight and evaluation to ensure the funds were used for the intended purposes and that feedback loops were in place to adapt the system over time.

Think of the advantages: a demand-driven process through which citizens could design development projects themselves; a new form of donor-government-citizen relationship in which each had a clear, coordinated and mutually reinforcing role; and a selection of innovative, context-specific development projects that would receive the funding they deserve.

This is a radical idea, and it has its drawbacks. There would need to be a way to vet projects and ensure financial support could be channelled to them in effective ways; there would be a danger that projects on the platform could be captured by political parties or groups that would rather use the funds for their own purposes; and internet access in many countries is still extremely low, meaning a number of people may not be able to access this kind of website.

But these are problems that traditional development models also face. Procedures could be put in place to verify and facilitate projects on the site. Finances could be channelled through community banks or microfinance institutions to even the most remote communities. The social, crowdsourced nature of the process would mean that project funds and costs would be completely transparent, reducing the scope for graft. Oversight gaps and the digital divide could be bridged in creative ways – through nominating locally trained and certified web-savvy coordinators with smartphones who could aggregate community preferences, for example.

An approach of this sort could be rolled out slowly – piloted by a small group of donors with a city or provincial government in a willing partner country, and focusing on a specific sector at the outset. From there it could be refined and expanded over time and even broadened to include all government revenues – not just aid dollars. Some government donors are moving in this direction – through the new Global Innovation Exchange led by USAid, for example.

Stubborn problems of poverty persist, and so do our outmoded tools for addressing them. Citizens around the world are demanding a different, better approach that works – isn’t it time we supplied it?