Kony 2012: Rethinking Global Problem Solving

The 'Kony 2012' director who was found naked in the street will remain in the hospital for several weeks. Danica Russell, Jason Russell's wife, attributed her husband's "reactive phsychosis" to the "sudden transition from relative anonymity to worldwide attention -- both raves and ridicules, in a matter of days."

"Relative anonymity to worldwide attention" is an understatement. The Internet gives new meaning to Warhol's observation about 15 minutes of fame. Russell is striving to bring Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the violent Lord's Resistance Army, to justice for crimes against humanity, and his video exploded onto the global stage. More than 100 million people viewed the video the first week it was online. Many of these people expressed support and donated money to Russell's cause.

Of course skepticism, also went viral. Some questioned Russell's character, such as when he told a magazine last year that "If Oprah, Steven Spielberg and Bono had a baby, I would be that baby." They also questioned how Russell was spending the money of the charity he ran, Invisible Children.

I share those concerns, not because I am a critic of Russell or his charity. I think that any organization that attracts that much attention and support has an obligation to be transparent. Courtesy of the Web, we know there will be many more causes and problem-solving groups seeking global fame and thus clout. In fact, we are in the early days of an explosion of new, networked models to solve global problems.

This is good because traditional global institutions are increasingly ineffective.

Throughout the twentieth century, nation states cooperated to build global institutions, to facilitate joint action, and address global problems. Many of these organizations were created in the aftermath of WWII. In 1944, 44 Allied nations gathered in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to develop a series of commercial and financial relationships for the industrial world.

This led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund, The World Bank, and ultimately to the United Nations (1945), The G8 (1975), World Trade Organization (1995), and numerous other organizations based on nation states. Some of these are formal institutions, but some are global initiatives designed to solve a problem, such as the Copenhagen conference on climate change.

But from our inability to come to agreements on everything from how to stop war lords like Joseph Kony to climate change, fighting poverty, Palestinian statehood or how to govern the global financial system, many people are questioning why existing approaches have proven so inadequate to fixing a broken world. Are the problems simply too hard to solve?

Unfortunately, national self-interests often take priority when today's challenges demand solutions that involve the cooperation of many countries. And while only 18 percent of the world's population lives in North America and Western Europe, these two regions possess overwhelming influence, thanks to the weight of their economic markets and grandfathered status as the world's powerbrokers.

They make little room for the inclusion of authentic citizen voices despite the fact that Internet-enabled self-organized civic networks are congealing around every major issue and challenge and the international agenda.

As Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum argues,

The major shifts in relative economic weight among countries that have occurred in recent decades have naturally led emerging players to seek a more consequential role in decision-making than is reflected in the governance of institutions organized for the most part following WWII. Countries with a vested interest in the current structures have often been reluctant to agree to changes that would dilute their influence.

"All of this makes for an intractable set of global governance organizations that are unable to satisfy the demands of today's global challenges because they are driven by individualized national priorities," says Schwab. "History has shown us that while the diversity of national interests provides breadth of perspective, it too often leads us to the lowest possible common denominator on issues of global importance."

Are there too many countries -- 193 -- and too many moving parts to produce anything other than the lowest common denominator? A growing number of social innovators seem to think so. After all, Muhammad Yunus and the Flannery's of the Kiva micro-financing network were seeking to alleviate poverty and create economic opportunity in the developing world. They could have tried to reform international development institutions from within and/or try to develop new business models within private sector companies, such as banks and financial services companies. But they choose to work outside them instead.

Today, microfinance has created a parallel banking system that has displaced much of the traditional banking and lending structures in the developing world. The aggregate results, notably 100 million customers with a repayment rate in the high 90 percent, have proven that a networked, and largely self-organized, system of peer-to-peer lending can not only work, it provides a sustainable way to lift millions of people out of poverty.

So now imagine a world where new global networks were created to match the scope of the new economic, environmental and security challenges. But rather than model them on a bloated and inefficient UN-type model, we modeled them on Kiva -- with vast networks of people and ideas united with the full complement of skills and resources needed to translate good ideas into action.

There are movements like the Alliance for Climate Change which attempt to educate, mobilize and change the policy of governments and global institutions. There are broader networks around multiple issues like Ushahidi -- the web site that was initially established to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout of 2008, and evolved into a global network to enable people to share information and organize for change.

There are more formal networked institutions such as the World Economic Forum or the Clinton Global Network that address a wide variety of issues but who unlike formal state-based institutions are self organizing and act as meta-networks attempting to help other networks succeed.

The World Economic Forum is a good example. It used to be a three-day meeting in a Swiss ski village where business, political and academic luminaries got to rub elbows. But increasingly it is holding events around the world and has shifted many discussions online. It wants to be a 365-days-a-year meeting of minds to set a global agenda and take action to "improve the state of the world."

All these networks are possible because of the Internet, which is radically dropping the transaction costs of collaboration, enabling them to quickly form and have a powerful, even astronomical impact. But as the Stop Kony movement shows, the new models raise myriad new questions and challenges. These non-state based models seem to hold great promise but how do we ensure their legitimacy, accountability and efficacy as vehicles for social justice and global cooperation?

For example, the Invisible Children movement may be inspired but is it legitimate? In whose interests do the leaders act? How will the many millions of dollars collected by the video campaign be spent? To whom are they accountable? Are they open to participation by appropriate people? The controversial perspective in the Kony video suggesting that the American military is needed to fix the situation raises the issue of who makes the decisions about the progress of the movement? It's easy to criticize our current global institutions like The United Nations as inept vehicles for solving global problems cooperation but at least they appear to be representative and legitimate bodies, accountable, in theory, to the national governments that fund them.

Regardless, the train has left the station and there appears to be no turning back. Old approaches are stalled and multi-stakeholder networks are emerging as a powerful force to fix a broken world.

Don Tapscott recently launched syndicated research programs on new networked models of global problem solving, cooperation and governance.