Shaun Ferris discusses how different technologies have transformed the way NGOs work in communities affected by poverty and injustice.
Technology is rapidly changing methods, support systems and the way NGOs work with communities and their service providers. This transformation is creating new opportunities in communities around the world, changing the day-to-day lives of many people affected by poverty and injustice, as they gain access through mobile devices to a wide range of digital information and services. Technology is also driving a new era of evidence-based decision making and accountability for development organisations enabled by faster, more accurate data collection, analysis and dissemination. Powered by technology, NGOs can strengthen project delivery, gauge impact, and improve programming across the NGOs over time.
Not many local businesses in emerging economies could support new apps and ICT4D innovations 15 years ago, apart from telecom companies. Governments were just beginning to explore the benefits of technology, and so infrastructure to support the ICT community was limited. In the following decade, mobile phone usage exploded across the developing world. Inspired by the tech transformation in the industrial world, NGOs began experimenting with technology and this led to a great deal of pilot testing. Most ICT products tested in the 2000s were experimental, offered free of charge and were proof of concept rather than setting out products with a clear client base and business model.
Therefore, few ideas were sustainable or ready for commercialisation. Scaling ideas with merit also proved difficult, as costs in ICT usage outside of the capital cities was often prohibitively expensive, investments were short term and ability to pay for the new services was weak. That situation is changing, as infrastructure is gaining momentum along with the strong economic growth in many emerging economies and local IT talent is emerging. Examples such as the use of voice communications, and the rapid rise of mobile money has had a profound change in the way people do business across Africa.
NGOs who once attempted to build their own products are now working to establish partnerships with both external and local IT business firms. This blend of experience, capital, knowledge and localised business solutions is giving rise to a new generation of products, entrepreneurs and services. Such partnerships are also exploring new business models. Some of these are free and support critical public sector services, whereas other services that support rural enterprise initiatives are shifting from free- to fees-based models.
Similarly the NGO world is also working more closely with government sectors and the private sector, to strengthen local systems to support areas such as input supply, natural resource management, early warning systems and market development. Each of these players work in their area of expertise and are increasingly linking their operations through some form of technology, which may support improved supply chain operations, better mapping, decision support tools, communications and more rapid information gathering.
Using technology to improve livelihoods
Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States, uses ICTs to improve the way it designs and implements programmes. In the agricultural sector, CRS has been building its understanding of the ICT4Ag space for the past 7–8 years.
It has found that pilot testing is an essential part of the learning process, making it possible to match technologies to specific types of projects. CRS is developing tools to harness technology to help farmers and farmer extension services gather information, develop decision support tools, map their work and monitor business performance. For example, farmers are given e-vouchers which they can use to purchase seeds to help them replant their fields. Mobile devices and cloud-based services make it possible to register beneficiaries, seed vendors, provide bar-coded vouchers and report on vendor payments.
CRS also works with field agents to support farmers to improve their market performance. Using Farmbook, a field-based business app that was built and tested at the request of a consortium of NGOs working in the Southern African Agro-Enterprise Learning Alliance, in this process, field agents learn new marketing and business skills using an e-learning platform. They record farmer business plans using a digital business ledger, and a monitoring tool enables them to record their activities.
Real-time market prices and weather updates are provided to farmers via text messages. In central Niger, CRS reported prices of peas and beans to farmers and in the Philippines, text messages delivered coffee and cacao prices which led to a 13% gain in revenue. Access to this information helps farmers to decide when and where to sell.
CRS emphasises the importance of working closely with all the actors in the technology to client eco-system, taking the time to listen and share the successes and failures that it encounters in its networks. Technology is already helping to transform the way people work in agriculture, and by further integrating digital systems into the way the sector works, better services will be delivered to communities in the future.