This is the second of a two-part piece which examines how participatory media can help streamline and democratize philanthropy. In the first post we saw three examples of how philanthropic foundations are relying on public input to help decide which proposals receive funding. This post will examine how participatory media can redefine the evaluation process after a project has already been funded by giving the targeted community a greater say in how the initiative has (or has not) had an impact on their lives.

As far as development work goes, the Millennium Villages project based at Columbia University’s Earth Institute has something of the celebrity status of say Angelina Jolie or Bono, both of whom in fact have become public faces for the project, which provides a holistic aid package to 12 rural villages in 10 African countries. Other well-groomed and well-known supporters of the project include George Soros, Brad Pitt, Madonna, and the founder of the initiative, celebrity economist, Jeffrey Sachs.

In fact, scanning the Millennium Villages’ news archive, it can seem as though just about everyone who is anyone has something to say about the experimental initiative in holistic development aid. Except, that is, the residents of the 12 targeted villages.

The success of the Millennium Villages project, like most development work, depends largely on who you’re willing to trust. Jeffrey Sachs is steadfast in his portrayal of the Millennium Villages as an unprecedented success in development aid. In a May 2007 article in Harper’s magazine, however, Victoria Schlesinger says that villages like Sauri, Kenya have in fact been receiving foreign aid for more than 15 years and that the Millennium Villages project comes down to re-branding a longtime effort that has little to show for itself. Sam Rich, a development consultant writing in the Wilson Quarterly, is much more measured in both his support and criticism of the project: “if Sauri is to become a useful model for development on a bigger scale, and not just another development expert’s white elephant, Sachs and others working on the project must acknowledge that they are still learning about Africa. Sauri is not yet a success.”

So who do we believe? Is the Millennium Villages project the answer to solving world poverty or, as Schlesinger asserts, just another example of ‘continuing poverty’?

The difficulty of finding unbiased voices about development and philanthropic projects is hardly limited to the Millennium Villages. NGO’s and non-profits – relying on continued support from donors, governments and philanthropies – are eager to cast their work in the most positive light possible. Likewise, donors want to know and to show that their investments are efficiently bringing about positive change.

This natural double bias has brought about an entire industry of independent evaluation consultants, almost all of whom are based in the United States and Western Europe. While an outside consultant can give us a less biased view of development projects, they still don’t have the historical and cultural context of the local community that is supposed to be benefiting from the investment.

Philanthropies and donors should stop spending so much money on costly consultants and start funding participatory media training workshops so that the target communities themselves are ultimately responsible for judging the success of development and philanthropic projects.

The Millennium Villages website frequently mentions the importance of local ownership to ensuring success, but local ownership does not come about unless locals are involved in the communication and evaluation process. Thanks to the increased accessibility of blogging, anyone with an internet connection or mobile phone is now able to participate in the international debate about any topic. Writing on the Communication Initiative Network, James Deane notes that the focus of next week’s major development aid conference in Ghana will be on getting local citizens, rather than national governments, to shape development policy. Similarly, former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala told a crowd at TED Global 2007 that development aid in Africa will only be a catalyst for change if individual Africans are the ones to collectively shape the priorities.

Africa’s ever-growing blogosphere has already taken on development policy, most notably in last year’s “trade versus aid” debate. But for those discussions to be truly relevant, they need to take place among local voices at the local level; for example, among residents of the millennium village of Sauri, Kenya.