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Power to the People

Which has more power to change the world – millions of dollars of donations or thousands of facebook fans?

Michael spoke yesterday at the Legatum Institute’s Next Generation Philanthropy Forum, held at the Foundling Museum in London (which celebrates one of the greatest achievements of the golden age of joint stock philanthropy in the 18th century). Two and a half centuries ago, the Foundling Hospital used the state-of-the-art communication tools of the day – paintings by Hogarth and music by Handel – to drum up support to save the lives of abandoned children in London, so it was a fitting venue for a discussion of the way that the Internet and mobile phone are changing philanthropy.

In the new paperback edition of Philanthrocapitalism, we have added a chapter expanding on our discussion of the ‘mass philanthrocapitalism’ of sites like Kiva. While a huge part of its success has been to mobilise millions of dollars to help poor entrepreneurs in the developing world (a subject of some controversy currently, which we will return to in a future posting), Kiva CEO Premal Shah tells us that the ability to mobilise Kiva supporters to lobby government has the potential for what he calls ‘crazy impact’.

We were reminded of this comment at the Legatum event when Ben Keesey, the CEO of Invisible Children, talked about how its campaign to raise awareness about the plight of children caught in the conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army led by the brutal Joseph Kony in Northern Uganda had led in two directions: fundraising to build schools and lobbying the US government to do more to end the fighting. Ben didn’t say which he saw as more important, but we are struck by the power of its campaign to mobilise hundreds of thousands of mainly young people in America to lobby political leaders about what might otherwise be a forgotten war.

The capacity of the mobile phone to provide real time information about conflicts was also brilliantly demonstrated by Julia Rotich of Ushahidi. Created in response to the violence that followed the rigged Kenyan elections of 2007, Ushahidi (the Swahili word for testimony) allows ordinary people to text information that is then used to create a map of what is really happening on the ground. The organisation is proud that this is an initiative created by Africans, and is now available as an open source technology that has already been used in other African countries to track supplies of essential drugs, and to monitor elections in Mexico and India. (Could this technology, we wonder, be used to add the perspective of ordinary people to the annual assessments of the quality of government in Africa run by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation?)

Dare we hope that a genocide like the one that happened in Rwanda fifteen years ago would be impossible today because orgnisations like Ushahidi, Invisible Children and Kiva would ensure that political leaders in the rich world would have to intervene? Now that would be the best kind of crazy impact.