Peer to Peer Aid

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Matt Stempeck:

"In the crisis management world, Kropotkin’s term ‘mutual aid’ describes the acts of the affected populations in leading their own response and recovery. Participatory aid is the evolution of mutual aid, which can stand independently of formal aid systems, and which invites participation of people from all over the globe to have greater impact, thanks to ICT. We might even reimagine the role of the formal aid systems to support and inform participatory aid.

The mutual aid school of thought has gained new currency in recent years with the success of technology-mediated peer-production movements38 like open source software, Wikipedia, and other digital projects where non-market forces drive individuals’ contributions to the common good. Collaborative projects have exposed the productive roles peer reputation and cooperation can play in driving meaningful participation.

Proponents of the peer-production trend, such as Stephen Johnson, argue that the continued debate over the appropriate role for the market and the state in society must also now include the third pole of networks of individuals. Mutual aid has evolved and grown stronger alongside our advances in information and communication technology. Johnson’s book, Future Perfect, describes ‘peer progressives’ who organize in a decentralized manner and can actually surpass the efficacy of traditional hierarchical (and market-driven) approaches.39 The descriptor ‘peer’ works, Johnson argues, on the civic level (“a jury of our peers”) as well as the technical level (peer-to peer networks).40 These broad shifts in the agency of networked individuals are changing the crisis response industry just as they have disrupted the music, travel, and countless other industries before it.

Industry after industry has been disrupted by the rise of connective technical platforms like the internet, which has enabled end consumers (or citizens) to source their books, news, music, travel, and, increasingly, their response to crisis, directly. In the 20th century, record labels gained control of many of the stages involved in the production and distribution of music. Peer to peer filesharing dramatically disrupted the labels’ 20th century distribution model, but also other stages, such as artist discovery, promotion, production, and the revenue models behind each process. In the travel industry, the middlemen known as travel agents have been replaced by more efficient web platforms that aggregate and filter numerous options for end consumers. Airbnb has further disrupted the travel industry by making private residences available to travelers, introducing serious competition to the hotel industry.

In each case, technology has brought producers and consumers closer together, or in some cases, blurred the lines beyond recognition. This creates a diminished role for mediator middlemen like retail stores, distributors, travel agents, and large crisis response NGOs. Cultural and business factors play an important role in timing, but one of the key independent variables in ICT disruption of consumer-facing industries is the introduction of intermediary platforms that supplant the human- or bureaucracy-organized options presented to consumers. These platforms usually accomplish this feat by simultaneously expanding the range of available options and improving customized filtering of these options to prevent overload and reduce friction (such as time or cost required for the consumer to take action).

Information and Communication Technologies like the World Wide Web and smartphones have not only connected us, but also digitized many of our professions.

Information workers, from lawyers to designers to cartographers, now use digital tools extensively in their labor. This development has opened up the opportunity to donate one’s time, and with it one’s professional skills and abilities, to assist in recovery efforts. Our networked, digitized workplace allows professionals to make significant pro bono contributions from anywhere in the world. Properly allocated, the time of an individual with valuable skills could quickly surpass the value of the small donation they may (or may not) represent as a traditional donor. The range of potential ways to help has also greatly expanded. Online, the simple act of bringing attention to a crisis has emerged as an important, if lightweight, contribution. Well-structured crowdsourcing allows even unskilled volunteers to contribute en masse.

Thus far, the participatory aid movement is small relative to the percentage of citizens that might give a donation during a telethon. One reason this is the case is that awareness of available ways to help is low (identified by Bekkers and Wiepking as a key factor in successful philanthropy). Another barrier to public involvement in participatory aid is the lack of a popular, central, and trans-crisis intermediary platform to connect those who seek to help with projects and organizations that can channel this energy.

We might expect fewer citizens to get involved in participatory aid projects relative to the number that take the simple act of making a donation. But we should also expect more people, in absolute terms, to contribute to participatory aid efforts, and in a wider range of ways than we’ve previously seen. This work seeks to encourage meaningful participation by producing a volunteer-friendly intermediary platform to increase awareness of channels accepting volunteer contributions and to reduce the friction of finding and joining such efforts.

The Humanitarian Horizons report predicts “the emergence of a “new humanitarianism” that will be part of neither the humanitarian nor development systems.”

Just as participatory media opens the power of communication to the audience, participatory aid invites the involvement of the people formerly known as beneficiaries, and their peers, to respond to and even drive recovery efforts themselves.

Information technology has driven participatory models of interaction forward and disrupted the companies, institutions, and societal expectations built, over decades, around the broadcast model. Macro trends independent of any specific players in the aid industry have shifted the roles and relative abilities of donors, recipients, and mediating organizations in ways we do not yet fully understand. In many ways, this shift echoes similar technology-driven disruption in other fields. Participatory aid does not outright replace formal aid, but if supported, could greatly augment it. This connection between disparate sectors requires facilitation." (

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