What ails NGOs and CSOs in IT use and adoption?

I’ve now had more time to read through the extremely interesting Online Technology for Social Change: From Struggle to Strategy report. This post gives an interest history on the genesis of the report, which though short and succinct, has a tremendous wealth of information and food for thought.

  • Though the report title reflects what may in some countries and regions a small group of social change agents, the research and recommendations resonate to a larger audience of civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations operational even in countries like Sri Lanka and regions such as South Asia. Social change is central to the mission and vision of many CSOs and NGOs, and technology plays an increasing role in their effort.
  • Many CSOs in NGOs in Sri Lanka struggle with technology. Much of what is highlighted in the report from a US centric viewpoint on the travails of using technology in the non-profit, social change, CSO / NGO sector mirrors that which I’ve seen and experienced in the NGO sector in Sri Lanka.
  • Some of the findings of the report are particularly insightful. For instance, many organisations, despite the size of their annual budgets, struggle to keep up with advances in technology, and to use the technology they already have at their disposal to their fullest potential. Many information systems operate in silos, forcing users to use multiple systems, with little in common between them, to manage donors, email lists and membership information. In a country like Sri Lanka, the prevalence of offline information (pen, pencil, paper, butcher-paper drawings, magi-board drawings, Post-it notes etc) is an even greater challenge for information management. My experience is that for many NGOs, even the larger ones in Colombo, information management is equated with a IT technician or developer – both professions that are woefully inadequate to advise NGOs on the manner in which technology can help shape social change, strengthen their initiatives and communicate their key mission and vision to key constituencies.
  • Unlike in the US, with a 73% penetration of the internet & web, Sri Lanka lags behind in internet and web connectivity, though the exponential growth of mobile telephony and the soon to be introduced WiMax offer a glimpse of a future where many more Sri Lankans may have access to the web through mobile devices and devices such as the OLPC or Simputer. Many NGOs are extremely ill prepared for this internet and web access regime, and are ill advised on how citizens content can help strengthen the social change they seek to champion.
  • As the report points out, many organisations aren’t even taking full advantage of existing IT infrastructure to strengthen their communications with stakeholders, donors and citizens.

“Despite believing in the importance of technology to their missions, a surprising number of organisations are not taking advantage of basic online organising techniques, such as collecting email addresses, sending out mass emails, posting news and information on websites, providing materials for download…”

  • Many NGOs and CSOs in Sri Lanka are unaware of the power of mobile phones to generate and disseminate content. An SMS poll in the Daily Mirror yesterday (registration required to view the article), in collaboration with zMessenger, was the first I’ve seen of a mainstream media newspaper using new media to generate citizen generate content that was featured on its front page. I don’t know of a single NGO that used mobile phone in campaigns for peace, democracy, reconciliation, human rights or good governance, though some organisations such as PAFFREL have used mobiles in elections monitoring to good effect. How scalable are these projects? How can NGOs and CSOs use mobile technology, along with Wikis, GIS, podcasts, amongst others? An earlier post of mine has some answers.


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  • This graphic in the report is particularly interesting, in that it clearly shows how CSOs and NGOs are, in effect, tech mashups writ large, using many tools to manage various aspects of their operations. In other words, there isn’t (and possibly never will be) one killer app for the NGO sector. There is, however, a deep sense of frustration amongst NGOs and CSOs that what they work with and have at their disposal isn’t really doing what they want it to do. In my own experience in Sri Lanka, this may be on account of inherent shortcomings in the technology itself, a lack of training, inappropriate technology solutions being used, or a vicious combination of all three.
  • Summarising the above, the report points out:

Organizers are clearly struggling, despite their general enthusiasm for technology tools. Regardless of budget size, they feel strapped for time, money, and know-how. They believe that their software lacks the features they need, that they lack the training and support to use the software, and they’re frustrated by the lack of integration between existing tools.

  • Working with the Institute for Media, Policy and Civil Society (IMPACS) based in Vancouver, Canada, I’ve been working on several new media and communications strategies initiatives for CSOs and NGOs in Sri Lanka. Put simply, within a context of heightened personal and organisational security, technology needs to support and strengthen the vitality of the CSOs and NGOs in Sri Lanka, help make these actors more accountable and transparent in their operations, help built trust and public accountability and above all, communicate key messages in support of a negotiated peace, democracy, good governance and human rights to a polity and society bombarded with hate speech and vicious, extremist elements who spew hate speech and incite hatred in alarming proportions.
  • For CSOs and NGOs in Sri Lanka in particular, strategic communications and crisis communications imperatives pre-figure an emphasis on how technology can strengthen their vision and mission. Communications strategies that helps CSOs and NGOs identify challenges and strengths, target audiences and the most effective means of reaching them with urgent and powerful messages can be augmented with the use of new media and new technologies. (For a related post, see Defeating repressive regimes)
  • The Online Technology for Social Change: From Struggle to Strategy report highlights the importance of “integrators”, which in some of my earlier work, I’ve called “connectors”. We both mean those who understand the imperatives, limitations and potential of CSOs and NGOs and are also strong in their understanding of technologies that can help in social change processes. The emphasis I always add is on process – since many IT Managers currently employed by CSOs and NGOs in Sri Lanka have an abysmal knowledge of how to adopt and use ICT for the long term process of social change and advocacy, and instead only offer (commercial, off the shelf) solutions that only exacerbate existing information and processual gaps.
  • Although the report doesn’t mention it specifically, most of its recommendation are founded on the tacit understanding on the need for open standards based applications, that working in concert, can help NGOs and CSOs better address the demands and challenges before them. (I’ve strongly advocated for open standards in peacebuilding applications and humanitarian applications, see here for a specific list of recommendations made at Strong Angel III and here for a list of previous posts on the issue). The awareness of open standards in Sri Lanka is deplorable – vendor lock in and data silos are frequently found in custom made IT solutions that don’t take into account a holistic appreciation of the organisation’s work and mandate, resulting in high maintenance costs, frustration, frequent let down of internal and external expectations.
  • With InfoShare and the Centre for Policy Alternatives now using Google Hosted Services for their email, and progressing onto the other hosted services available (such as group calendaring), the report also underscores the potential possibilities as well as dangers of switching to hosted services for organisations that cannot afford custom solutions. In Sri Lanka, the recent and unexpected demise of Lanka Internet’s email and internet services that left many prominent NGO’s and CSO’s and activists were suddenly left without email and web access underscores the need to look at hosted services.
  • As the report points out:

“As constant advances in technology motivate and surprise us, the question becomes less about the limits of technology itself, but rather how we choose to use it, and how we make it a more accessible tool…”

  • Beyond the report, two ideas of dotorganise are, to me, very much the foundations of how technology will be used in the civil society / social change sector in the future. The first, the AppsMash Lab, is a tremendously fascinating idea (on the lines of Peace Tools, and certainly an idea that InfoShare‘s trying to incubate in Sri Lanka):

Rather than try to develop yet another new toolset from scratch, our goal is to encourage “ecosystems” of software and software modules that share data and build on each other’s strengths, rather than stand-alone applications that seek to be all things to all organizations. The result would be a new crop of tools that build upon existing tools, fill the gaps where needed, and ensure that data can be shared seamlessly across all applications.

Ultimately, the AppsMash Lab will serve as a catalyst and development incubator for new and innovative tools driven by the real needs of social change organizers.

  • The second, the Organiser’s Tool Crib, is a fascinating social networking based collection of online and offline tools for social change organisations, CSOs and NGOs. This is certainly the first of its kind I’ve seen on the web, and is a tremendously useful tool for experts and newbies and helps non-profits figure out what’s out there in the form of tools that can help them in their work.. It’s also helpful if you want someone to design a custom programme / suite of applications, to see what’s available already online and nourish the development of home grown tools by looking at best practices already on the web.
  • The Online Technology for Social Change: From Struggle to Strategy report is compelling reading, highly recommended for leaders and key staff of NGOs and CSOs and communications consultants working in the non-profit sector, in order to strategise, design and implement ICT solutions that strengthens progressive and peaceful social change in the years to come.

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