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Making Change: AidMarket Re-Thinks Foreign Aid

by Megan Bedford

Thor Gestsson
Name: Thor Gestsson
University: Columbia University
Major: Philosophy
Grad Year: 2005

Company: AidMarket
Title: Founder and Executive Director
Year founded: 2007
Type of company: NGO nonprofit
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Number of employees: 2

The Problem

The list of issues plaguing the world's poor is both long and familiar to most Americans. However, these issues, such as AIDS in Africa, can seem overwhelming and almost impossible to approach; it is easy to feel helpless to change a situation several thousand miles away. Enter Thor Gestsson.

Gestsson is the founder and executive director of AidMarket, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the use of foreign aid money. His goal is for AidMarket to serve as a "marketplace for foreign aid and philanthropic work" that "enhances the impact of enabling donors to get more involved in the development effort."

Taking one step back, you might be asking yourself what's wrong with current aid administrations, such as the UN or even Project RED. Gestsson has a bold response to this question: "The aid environment is riddled with inefficiency and corruption to the extent that it is difficult to argue that aid has had a positive effect on the growth of nations or global poverty reduction."

What it boils down to, claims Gestsson, is that our aid money isn't reaching the people it is meant to help.

If you aren't part of the solution...

Gestsson, a native of Iceland who has lived in the States since he was 17, graduated from Columbia in 2005 and began work as an educational consultant. He became interested in international relations and realized that effective educational aid was one key in reducing poverty in suffering nations.

"I have a tendency to seek out problems so as to contemplate a potential solution."

As Gestsson says, "I have a tendency to seek out problems so as to contemplate a potential solution. This tendency inspired further research of the aid environment to better understand the problems at hand." Once Gestsson found a flaw in the system, he met the challenge head-on. He explains, "I proceeded to develop what I considered to be the 'ideal approach to development assistance.'"

Gestsson's AidMarket approach is different from other agencies in that it operates transparently, as an apolitical organization. Gestsson finds that politics often cloud foreign aid projects. "The illegitimate use of public money cannot be tolerated," he says. "It is important that the UN and other international agencies funded with public money operate transparently," he adds, "both in their finances and their hiring and promotion practices."

Gestsson says that he searched for an organization that shared some of his ideals for aid assistance, but came up with none. The conclusion he came to is both bold and seemingly natural: founding a company to put his ideas to action. Gestsson says, "I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to a noble cause and accomplish something unique." An AidMarket slogan hammers home his point: "I AM a part of the solution; how are YOU involved?"

Serving the Poor

Like many socially conscious entrepreneurs, Gestsson realized that it was up to the private sector to enact social change. And while AidMarket is still in its early stages of development, his passion for its cause is great. "What surprises me," Gestsson explains, "is that the effects of globalization and universal human rights have not benefited the poor as they should. It surprises me that no one, given various levels of education, has developed an alternative approach to the sharing of wealth."

"It surprises me that no one, given various levels of education, has developed an alternative approach to the sharing of wealth."

Gestsson theorizes that part of the problem with major aid organizations is that the recipients of aid are not the actual customers-the donors are. This means that the wealthy nations become more important in the process than poverty-stricken ones, thus opening the door to manipulation of funds. With AidMarket, however, Gestsson states, "the poor are our customers."

In a 2005 study by Real Aid, Gestsson found that "eighty-six cents in every dollar of American aid is 'phantom aid.'" In other words, it is a percentage that doesn't actively benefit the poor. "There are too many hands in the pot," he says.

Gestsson's main goal with AidMarket is to transfer money more directly between donor and recipient, by facilitating a partnership between donors and agents. As Gestsson says, "donors finance, agents implement." AidMarket works to connect donors and agents; these parties register with AidMarket as "I AM Donors" and "I AM Agents." Part of the AidMarket approach is a system for rating, so that donors may rate agent work in contributing their money to a good cause. Because AidMarket bookkeeping is open to the public, donors can actively watch how their aid is being used. I AM Donors can choose which I AM Agents to work with. Gestsson says that most I AM Agents pursue small-scale projects, but ones with definite solutions to definite problems.

Making It Happen

AidMarket is still young, and has yet to test its theory in actual operation, but if Gestsson's determination is any indicator, its success is surely ahead. His persistence is inspiring in that it takes an optimistic approach to difficult situations. For example, although Gestsson claims he's yet to reach his big break, he rationalizes that "one could argue that the officials administrating matters of aid assistance have overplayed their hand, and presented us with a moment that's crying out for transformation of the whole aid environment."

"Once you've figured out what it is that you want to accomplish, then it's just a matter of discipline and sheer determination."

As of January this year, Gestsson obtained the web domain for AidMarket (, and he has since been actively pursuing publicity for his cause. He plans to have a full report on AidMarket finished by late May-on the date of his 25th birthday. He is hoping to publish the report, which explains what he terms the "aid environment," including its problems and the solutions that AidMarket offers. Once enough interested donors and agents sign on, AidMarket can begin actual facilitations.

Gestsson's advice to other young entrepreneurs is noteworthy because it is characteristic of his own experience launching AidMarket. It also highlights the organization's promising future. "Be sure of your interests in the topic you engage," he says. "Identify a problem and attempt to solve it. Once you've figured out what it is that you want to accomplish, then it's just a matter of discipline and sheer determination."


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