Monday, December 20, 2010

Solidarity Voting Initiatives

How can we improve our humanitarian foreign policy advocacy?  I think we should start offering advocates direct phone connections to beneficiaries.  Why isn't this happening?

Many of the biggest problems in international development fly in the face of fundamental economic assumptions like perfect information and competitive advantage.  The continued difficulty of establishing international peer advocacy networks is yet another example.  So, we will need to zoom in individual incentive concerns to look at barriers to growth of these networks.  

Let's take a moment to look at broad concepts, to see if direct communication is even theoretically reasonable.
  • Consider a US citizen who wants to support the Sudanese population.  What are her barriers to initial participation? What doubts or concerns limit the supply of US advocates?  It's not sheer time-of-day, because 1-800-GENOCIDE is extremely efficient.
  • We suggest that a primary barrier is personal contact.  And, we suspect that this personal contact can be achieved through phone calls.  What if any American frustrated with our foreign policy could pick up a cellphone and call - for free - an English-speaking Sudanese refugee in Darfur, any day from 4pm-8pm?  What if this could be a Skype videoconference?
The advocacy professionals I have spoken with so far about this have not been interested in trying this idea.  I think that's just because I haven't found the people in the right positions yet.

Consider the following economic questions:
  • How much economic benefit does the median Sudanese household receive from one US citizen's phone call to a congressperson's office through 1-800-GENOCIDE?  What is the value of this phone call, in terms of labor-hours?
  • Considering the budget and spending preferences of anti-genocide advocacy groups, how much financial resources are they willing to provide to make the calls-to-congresspersons happen?
So here's the bare cost-benefit picture.  If the social surplus is large, then the project is conceptually feasible. 
The cost of a phone-card call to Sudan is $0.15 / minute.  For lack of better information, let's assume that the cost of owning and receiving calls on a cell phone in Sudan is another $0.15 / minute.  So total hard costs are 30 cents / minute, or $4.50 for a 15-minute call.

Cost of time is another consideration.  Let's assume that the benefit to the advocate of connecting directly to a new friend in Sudan outweighs the cost of their personal time.  However, lost time and wages for the Sudanese person answering the call are also important.  If they do not own their own phone, they may have to travel for some time to get to an NGO office to take phone calls from advocates.  They may also need to spend some time preparing to answer the calls.  Let's assume that a 15-minute phone call requires half an hour of the Sudanese partner's time.  For an educated English speaker, this may be another couple dollars.
  • Total costs of a call to Sudan = $4.50 in phone bills + $2.00 of Sudanese professional's time
  • Total benefits = ?   How many advocacy calls to Congress and policymakers will each call to Sudan generate?
However, idealized economic opportunity costs are only part of the picture.  Sudanese professionals and even average citizens will be very busy working on a daily basis.  Professionals may not be interested in rescheduling their time on short notice to take a call, even if it pays well.  And although $2 might be a day's wages for an average citizen, they are also probably busy all the time.  So taking time away from permanent occupations to commute to trainings and call sessions might be a difficult intrusion into a Sudanese person's lifestyle.

Regardless of all these problems, offering foreign humanitarian advocates a convenient opportunity to consult directly with beneficiaries of improved US foreign policy could be a big improvement.  Books and youtube videos are great, but there's something special about an immediate personal connection.

Solidarity Voting Initiatives is a group of young professionals interested in developing personal connections between humanitarian advocates and the people they hope to serve.  Contact us at

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