I was invited to participate yesterday in a forum organised by the Digital Bridge Institute in conjunction with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Georgia Tech University and the MacArthur Foundation.
The meeting started on Tuesday, but the first two days were limited to MacArthur grantees and some close colleagues of Harvard and Georgia Tech. On Thursday, the forum was opened up to heads of up to 100 Nigerian NGOs.
It was my first time at the Institute and I was impressed by how smoothly the registration process proceeded (unlike a certain IT regulatory body's meeting, which I attended recently). And also unlike many other meetings, it started (almost) on time.
The objective of the day's meeting was to explore the ways in which NGOs can employ ICTs to work more efficiently. Colin Maclay of the Berkman Center kicked off the day with a review of the Information & Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) field. He outlined that he found this area interesting because:
- ICTs are a catalyst for change;
- ICTs offer innovative approaches to change;
- ICTs distribute and decentralise power
As a result, people become the drivers of change because they are the experts on their local issues. This means that it is important for NGOs to learn to engage with the technology available, rather than defer to 'experts' and 'consultants.'
His recommendations for NGOs seeking to use ICTs included:
- Adopting a wider mindset i.e. rethinking how we do our work
- Collaboration between and within sectors, because problems can be tacked from different angles
- Meetings of leadership and working towards consensus. This includes not being afraid to step-up to leadership positions.
- Dialogue and experimentation to see what tools work and to learn from past failures
- looking at how ICTs can be adapted to local needs
Ethan Zukerman (also of Berkman) gave a rousing and engaging presentation on web 2.0 tools and how they were designed to enable non-techies contribute content to the Internet. While this means, that a lot of the content will be fun and light-hearted or 'silly' stuff, that is no indictment on the tools. The user-friendliness of these tools means that can be as easily appropriated for more serious change-making. Examples are the use of Google Earth to track the movements of the Tunisian presidential jet as it carried the First Lady around the world on shopping expeditions; Fixmystreet.com; Ushahidi; Vote Report India.
Key questions to think about for NGOs are:
- How do NGOs get everyone paying attention and watching? (especially using new technologies like blogs, social networking sites; Twitter; bridge blogs)
- How can NGOs filter (to identify what voices should be heard) and amplify (to ensure people hear about it) content?
- How do NGOs use the technology to talk to different audiences? (think online vs. offline audiences; using local languages; using personal stories)
Next up, came the presentations by the Nigerian IT Development Agency (NITDA) and Galaxy Backbone reps. I probably shouldn't slag either of these off too much, as I might want to seek funding from them at some point (see my Twitter feed for more info).
Next, Eric Osiakwan (of africanelections.org), Juliana Rotich (of Ushahidi) and Ethan Zukerman spoke about various uses of new technologies in promoting political participation.
Things got a bit hot when Wale Goodluck (Corporate Services Executive of MTN Nigeria) took the floor. He raced through a presentation on MTN Foundation's community service projects and took questions afterwards. These ranged from angry diatribes about the network's poor service to complaints about unsuccessful grant applications. Others lobbed accusations of Goodluck's inaccessibility to NGOs outside of forums such as these. All through, Goodluck's face was immobile, but I have to say that he responded to these questions and criticisms with good humour.
Fantusam Foundation, the Kafanchan-based NGO which started operations in 1996 in response to the local needs of financial empowerment and has since grown into a thriving organisation was held up as a model for other NGOs seeking to do development work. Although Fantsuam started off with 1 laptop, it has now adopted an integrated approach to development by offering ICT training, ISP services, micro-finance, health awareness and education programmes.
Gbenga Sesan (of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria and Ajegunle.org) and Y.Z. Yau (of the Centre for IT and Development - CITAD) talked about applications of IT to education and health.
The day was capped off with guidance on finding donor funding. This was led by Adam Thompson of the University of California - Santa Cruz and John Bracken of MacArthur Foundation. MacArthur does have a presence in Nigeria, though their programme focus is on Reproductive Health and Human Rights.
Hard truth #1: They turn down 90% of the applications they receive.
Hard truth #2: Most of the NGOs in the room are too small to qualify for funding from the big foundations like Ford
Hard truth #3: There will unlikely be that one big funder who takes care of all your expenses. More likely, you will have to develop multiple income streams and seek ways to offer products or services for a fee.
A member of the audience shared that he ran his organisation for 8 years out of his pocket before being approached by a funder. Bottomline in his opinion: other NGOs need to be willing to do this too.
Ethan Zukerman has detailed posts on his blog and maybe I should just have linked to those instead of writing this lengthy epistle: Post 1; Post 2; Post 3:.