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One of the highlights of the Akvo Track Day Amsterdam edition in May was Andrew Pederson’s great talk on cocoa trees and how to make cocoa farming sustainable (watch it here on akvo.tv). Until this summer Andrew was our lead contact at Akvo partner Mars Chocolates, and has impressed us all with his approach and vision. He’s moved on from Mars now but is applying his talents on a wider scale. We’re pleased to wrap up 2013 with a guest post from him.

If flying robots can deliver packages full of books, designer goods and food to our doorsteps with the click of a mouse, why is it still impossible to know how many people in Port au Prince lack access to clean water? Understanding what we can and cannot know about the severe problems in the world today is a critical step in making significant progress on “intractable” issues like poverty and basic human rights.

In the early days of sustainable trade, Max Havelaar introduced development as a problem of low consumer awareness, and most large organizations working in this space now use some version of this model. The theory goes that if consumer products can be appropriately labeled, groups can advertise for these products, consumers will seek out and purchase labeled products, and the resulting market signals will provide the right incentives to improve the system over time. Though this model’s instability and ineffectiveness have been observed numerous times, its popularity persists, especially among people whose only exposure to it has been paid advertisements.

As a result, many groups focus their time, attention and resources on fundraising, marketing and, more recently, large scale crowd-funding campaigns. While this is reasonable from a financial perspective, most of these groups’ goals do not involve profit, and their core missions to reduce poverty or provide access to clean water can be overlooked. As well, in societies like the U.S., where people are more likely to give money to charity, some level of fraud is inevitable.

After years of high profile frauds and failures, however, a burgeoning conversation has spurred many Americans to more closely examine their charitable giving habits. This trend, while most recently praised in the Wall Street Journal, was very clearly articulated by Hope Consulting as early as 2010 and has existed for years as cottage industry that includes Charity Navigator, DonorsChoose.org, GlobalGiving.org and others.

While examining and regulating management and financial practices is a good thing for any organization, these discussions miss a central point: we still lack concrete evidence to evaluate how most of them are doing when it comes to their core missions. Worse, we have very few commonly accepted methodologies and indicators to allow us to easily collect mutually intelligible and comparable data sets in key areas.

Read the rest of this entry over on Andrew’s blog here.