The results are out for the Africa Rural Connect competition and the winners are..... Zittnet! Many thanks to all who voted, and encouraged others to vote. We also understand and respect the views of those who have issues about these kind of competitions and will not vote in them. Some of these issues are discussed later.
Back to the results. It was a close call. Last week “we” (ie our friends at Zittnet plus their supporters) were struggling for second place, and the leaders were way out ahead. Then, amazingly, we managed to start closing the gap. By the final day, with just over five hours to go we were nearing 250 votes and were only 5 votes behind the leaders - but they seemed to be getting another new vote for everyone we managed to get. It was hard to know where any more votes might come from - but people kept spreading the word and the vital votes kept coming in, and we just made it:
3rd Prize!! - Soymilk production expansion in Ghana (138 endorsements)Wins $1,000
2nd Prize!! - Solar Energy Revolution in West Africa (278 endorsements)Wins $2,000
1st Prize!! Zittnet - Agricultural Network Centres (283 endorsements) Wins $3,000
Obviously at Dadamac we are biased – but we think Zittnet are deserving winners. We have seen the work of Zittnet; we know the context; we have reported on some of Zittnet's trials and tribulations in recent months and we are confident that the idea they have put forward will serve genuine needs. We are convinced that the $3,000 prize money directed to Zittnet will be well placed and will show excellent results in terms of local benefit. We are delighted to see some good fortune coming their way after all the problems that they have faced and tackled with such tenacity.
Although we worked to help Zittnet get their votes, and we are delighted they managed to pull ahead in the final hours, we do share the concerns that some people expressed when we asked for votes. The winning idea is the one that is best at getting online votes, not necessarily the best project, and it is much easier for some projects to get a high online profile and attract support.
In seeking votes it seemed that:
People who were most aware of development issues were least willing to cast votes “just because they were asked” even if they knew and respected the work in general.
Some people were obviously “unhappy” at being asked to vote but did not make further comment.
Some said they definitely would not vote for us.
Some explained that they don't like this kind of competition.
People who knew our work but were not comfortable using the internet for anything but the most basic tasks found it almost impossible to register their votes without help of some kind.
People who enjoy using the Internet, but had not previously come across the idea of voting in this kind of competition were most willing to respond to a request to vote.
Requests to our contacts via lists did not seem to get any obvious results in terms of votes - but they may have had a gradual impact.
Requests to list do get reposted to other lists.
Personal one-to-one requests for support seemed to be most effective – although they were sometimes uncomfortable to do given the negative feelings some people have towards this kind of competition.
Very few people are in a position to read through many/all of the ideas and judge them on merit.
Are these competitions a good idea?
It is a great benefit and encouragement to projects to have the opportunity to win these valuable prizes. From that viewpoint they are a great idea, and much appreciated. However it is arguable that if a system of online voting is used then the winning projects will always simply be the ones most able to attract online support. By definition, grassroots projects in rural areas are unlikely to have Internet connectivity (Zittnet being an exception that proves the rule). Given that good Internet connectivity, or having friends with good Internet connectivity, affects the opportunity to get votes the system is unfair and it would be good to explore alternative systems.
Is it a lottery?
How can organisations like Africa Rural Connect distribute their prizes in ways that are fair and achieve maximum benefit? Maybe a mixture of approaches is needed. If voting can't be fair then perhaps it would be best to accept that fact and have the final choice based on a lottery that will be equally fair to all comers. Obviously a lottery that is too open runs the risk of wasting the prizes by giving them to undeserving projects. It seems some kind of process is needed to weed out the weakest ideas and promote the good ones.
Could there be simple peer review?
How might the weeding out be done before the lottery? Perhaps some kind of quick and simple peer review might be the answer.
What if everyone entering an idea was required to help with the peer review process. When all the ideas were in they could be grouped according to emerging themes. Each person could be given, say, five projects to review (related to their area of expertise ie with the same theme as their own project). These projects would simply be ordered according to merit, so the peer review task would not be too onerous. Thus every project would be peer reviewed (graded) five times. Top projects would go in the prize draw, bottom ones wouldn't.
A rough idea to be improved on
This is only a rough idea, written in the belief that anyone who criticises an existing system should at least make some effort to suggest an alternative. It would still be rather hit and miss, but could be fairer than the present system. Maybe we need a competition to find good ideas on running competitions.