They've been called the "development mafia" -- shadowy experts in obscure disciplines such as drip irrigation and capacity building. But until recently, the tens of thousands of freelance consultants, NGO workers, and aid agency employees who make up the international development world were more of a scattered horde than a cohesive community. That might be about to change.
Earlier this year, Raj Kumar, president and cofounder of the Washington-based Development Executive Group, launched a social networking tool designed to connect development professionals and the firms that require their expertise. The site, devex.com, was inspired by Web 2.0 companies such as Facebook and LinkedIn. But whereas Facebook junkies list their favorite bands and upload photographs of friends, Devex’s nearly 90,000 global users boast about their project management skills and their latest professional certifications.
Site members can, depending on their level of access, post projects, form networks based on common interests, browse and monitor upcoming bids, find job opportunities, and get in touch with experts on the ground. Looking for an English-speaking agricultural specialist in Colombia with at least five years of experience? Devex gives you a choice of 28.
At the heart of the site, though, is its massive projects database, which currently lists more than 47,000 projects on everything from rural sanitation in Bangladesh to policing in the Palestinian territories -- searchable by region, country, donor, project type, or status. By aggregating this information in one place, Kumar says, Devex gives everyone a chance to find out about opportunities, not just the well-connected (though executive members do get "early intelligence" reports about upcoming projects).
Kumar's goal is to make a profit, but he also hopes the site will help more foreign aid reach those in need. "Efficiency isn’t sexy," he admits. "But with $200 billion in foreign aid each year, a few percentage points of efficiency gains is like adding another Gates Foundation to the world." ActionAid International, an antipoverty group, estimates that in 2004 alone, nearly $12 billion was spent on "over-priced and ineffective technical assistance." For the world's poorest, the social networking revolution couldn't come soon enough.