Linking civil society

David Barnard

It started with two floppy disks smuggled into South Africa in the late 1980s, at the height of the Apartheid era, to establish the first electronic mailing system. Today it continues to play a major role in promoting ICT in Southern Africa and now SANGONeT is looking to the future.

Initially known as Worknet, with trade union connections, the history of SANGONeT is closely linked to the social and political changes experienced by South Africa in the last two decades. As we celebrate our first 20 years, it is important to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead. In the past few years we have made various strategic changes to the operational focus and organizational structure. A number of old ICT products and services were phased out, our methods of delivering information changed and new initiatives were conceptualized and implemented.

Although many South African NGOs are already active users of ICTs, much more needs to be done to strengthen skills in the sector. The introduction and integration of ICTs represents huge opportunities, as well as challenges, in the process of transforming and strengthening the South African NGO sector. Internet usage in the country has quadrupled in the past few years. Unfortunately, that still means only 3 million people, just 8% of the population, have access to the web. This is mainly a result of high telecommunication costs and bandwidth limitations. The situation will hopefully improve in the next few years given significant growth in mobile phone usage and the introduction of competition with fixed telephone lines.

Given the reach of the internet, local NGOs should actively participate in global discussions and debates - and more importantly, influencing the international development agenda. Indeed, the internet heralds a strategic opportunity for the future of NGOs as it provides an efficient way to channel information about their activities and engage with constituencies, including donors, government, the private sector, general public and community partners.

New developments in ICT, characterized by web 2.0 and social networking tools in particular, are changing the way in which people and organizations communicate, share information, network, and mobilize in support of issues of common concern. These tools present NGOs with exciting new opportunities to raise awareness about their work, connect with a wide range of individual and institutional donors, raise money and find volunteers, both locally and internationally. Despite the benefits, however, it is still a huge challenge for many organizations to adopt and apply these tools. As a result, there is a specific need to create awareness and educate NGOs about the potential of web 2.0 applications, how to get started and ultimately enhance the impact and outputs of their work. With approximately 100,000 non-profit organizations operating in South Africa, only a small percentage are equipped with the necessary ICT skills and expertise required to support their work. As such, SANGONeT’s future activities will be geared towards increasing its impact on the ICT uptake in the South African, and the broader Southern African NGO sector.

Improving connections

The emphasis will be on brokering a wide range of affordable and relevant ICT solutions for NGOs in conjunction with private sector ICT service providers. This is already happening through the SANGOTeCH technology donation portal which gives NGOs the chance to buy software at lower prices. We will expand our range of information services through our NGO portal and deepen our knowledge of ICT trends and changes in the NGO sector through the annual ‘State of ICTs in the South African NGO Sector’ research project. SANGONeT also raises awareness to the potential of the internet for NGOs and promoted good web design and application development through the annual South African NGO web awards, while the ‘ICTs for Civil Society’ conference and the ongoing Thetha ICT discussion forums means we continue our advocacy work and maintain our links with the sector.

We will therefore continue to use both on- and offline methods to achieve our strategic objective of enhancing the role and impact of the internet in the NGO sector. An example of this is the three-year civic journalism project that we implement in conjunction with the Dutch donor agency, Hivos, in six African countries. The specific objective of the project is to improve the technical and journalistic skills of selected African NGOs. By using a mixture of traditional and digital media together with journalistic professionalism the democratic processes are supported and a diverse and independent media is encouraged.

Increasingly, most of SANGONeT’s activities will be expanded to include other parts of Southern Africa. Many of the ICT and sustainability issues facing South African NGOs correlate with the challenges and opportunities facing similar organizations in neighbouring countries. Southern Africa is still confronted with many challenges associated with the ‘digital divide’. This situation impacts on the development of the region and its competitiveness in the global business environment. The cost of telecommunications and the lack of political will in many countries to introduce changes in the ICT environment continue to be major obstacles to creating an ‘information society’ in the region that will benefit all its inhabitants.

Our organization is at a very important juncture in its history and evolution. The first twenty years have come and gone. Many challenges remain to build up and expand our core ICT activities, and to do justice to our mission and vision. SANGONeT’s response over the next few years will ultimately ensure its continued relevance and long-term survival.

David Barnard is executive director of SANGONeT.

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More information:

SANGOTeCH

SANGONeT NGO Portal

PRODDER NGO and Development Directory

State of ICTs in the South African NGO Sector research project

ICTs for Civil Society Conference

Thetha ICT Discussion Forums

26 October 2007

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