Abstract: Structuring Aid from the Ground Up

As world citizens, one of our most important responsibilities is to provide aid to those who need it. The World Bank (WB) is an international organization that embodies this principle, whose objective is to eliminate poverty worldwide through economic development assistance, using aid money to fund projects ranging from microloans to local businesses to large-scale agricultural developments. Despite the simplicity of this mission, its implementation has been anything but simple.

According to a World Bank special report issued October 16th, 2012, approximately 50-70% of the microloans issued to Pakistani women entrepreneurs by the WB never reach their intended beneficiaries; instead, the money is funneled through to male household members who either don’t qualify for the loans themselves or have defaulted in their past. The final report showed that popular sociocultural attitudes towards women in Pakistan– and the institutionalized lending policies that resulted from them– are severely limiting the women that the World Bank is trying to empower.

My goal with my research is to examine cases such as this one to determine whether ground-level input from local residents, regional experts, or others might be useful for tailoring aid delivery. What benefits might new technology like smartphones offer for getting better knowledge of local waterways for irrigation projects? What advantages could we gain from a “Google Street”-style team of locals who walked through their roads making 3-D maps of their villages? Might surveys of Pakistani women have helped the World Bank avoid its aforementioned microloan delivery problem? Perhaps if we take time to listen to what people on the ground are saying, we will be better able to reduce inefficiency in aid delivery.

For a video on this topic, see the TED talk below, delivered by the World Bank Vice President himself!

TED Talk: Open data in International Aid


  1. This is an incredibly interesting topic! I feel like one of the big questions about aid organizations like the World Bank is if they are actually doing more harm than good. You mention community-level input (“ground-level”) as well as some participatory development ideas. Do you plan on looking into community-based participatory research strategies to development and the impact these are having in relation to more top-down strategies, like those employed by large NGOs?
    Great topic and best of luck!

    Johnathan Maza

  2. jakobstalnaker says:

    Mark, I find your proposal fascinating. The idea that we spend so much money to help those who are far less fortunate in these countries, only to have that money spent to benefit a select few is a persisting problem. I am also wondering specifically who would be receiving the funds instead in a more bottom up approach. Do you have any examples in mind?

  3. Thanks for the well wishes, Johnathan! The actual effectiveness of aid organizations is definitely an important topic, especially since most people assume that these organizations are beneficial when the findings are actually far from conclusive. It’s good that you’re asking the types of questions that you are!

    In response to your comment, I am indeed focusing on exactly what you’ve described! I’m interested in how to retrieve the information that’s floating around at the feet of people on the ground (e.g. how big is your field, what seeds are you using, what school supplies does your school have, what’s your weekly diet look like) and bringing that info to the decision-makers at the World Bank so they can make more informed choices in the planning stages of their projects.

    The only distinction I would make from your comment is that my research is more technique-based than result-based. Though the effectiveness and results are VERY important (why recommend a technique that wouldn’t reasonably work?), my real focus is on the types of strategies that could be employed. Often these techniques involve new technologies that haven’t had enough time to deliver solid, convincing results that definitively prove the value of crowd-sourced info, so I weigh the POTENTIAL success of these techniques alongside proven results/impact.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Jake! My research is less focused on WHO gets the money, or HOW the money is used, than it is on how information can be delivered from ground zero of the project to the decision-makers at the World Bank. My area of research is more on what techniques could be employed to get a better, more colored and realistic view of the ground floor of these projects. In light of this, the results of my research won’t indicate a new way to allocate money, but rather a new way to allocate info.

    Here’s an example that might illuminate what I’m talking about. In Laos, many people suffer from protein deficiency in their diets. The government set up a program called PRAM to educate people and encourage them to build small ponds in their backyards to farm fish. However, many people who built ponds found that their fish kept dying and didn’t know why. In select areas, a technique was implemented called “MapIt,” a smartphone app that let people take a picture of their ponds, use intuitive tools to indicate how far the picture was taken from the pond, how tall the photographer was, and the angle the picture was taken at. From this, even illiterate people were able to send pictures that could be easily processed to determine the size, depth, and shape of the ponds, as well as qualitative factors like color of the water and surrounding plants. The MapIt team realized that many people made ponds too small, which is why the fish were dying. PRAM planned to spread the use of MapIt to a wider population in early 2013 and planned to continue to get more info, that way PRAM programs can better educate people on how to make their ponds.

    Though the results are not in yet, this technique seems pretty cheap and easy, and would be useful if adopted by the World Bank. It could probably be modified to identify the size of fields, land-mine areas, and waterways, as well as any number of other applications. This is the type of thing that I’m interested in learning more about.

    If you happen across any articles you think I might found useful, feel free to send them my way! Thanks for interest, good luck with your own research.