Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Gates Project 10: Cheap is Beautiful

Today I spoke with Ory Okolloh, a smart and dynamic Kenyan who, along with her mysterious accomplice M, has created the great parliamentary watchdog site Mzalendo ("patriot" in Swahili). Mzalendo allows Kenyans to check on what bills are before Parliament and read about the background of their MP's. By providing information on the activities of the Kenyan Parliament, Mzalendo shines a light where the government prefers it weren't. Said Ory at the Digital Citizens Indaba in September, "In Kenya, you hide information without knowing why you’re hiding it. With technology, you can break that open.”

Other than the site's mission and its content, one of the most beautiful things about Mzalendo is its budget- about $20 a month for web hosting. This low cost is in part due to M's technical expertise, which allowed the site to be created and maintained on a volunteer basis. While highly-skilled and committed volunteers might not be an option for every NGO, the internet is nevertheless an important cost-saving medium for the non-profit sector. The internet makes incredibly powerful communication incredibly cheap and it has been my experience with Demologue.com and the Free Alaa campaign that you can realize projects with a worldwide reach almost for free.

My worry is that providing large funding in the e-advocacy sector could in fact kill the beauty of the internet's cheapness. Injecting funds into small organizations might create large and unwieldy dependent projects rather than efficient and flexible independent ones. Taking large grants that encourage re-structring may in fact create unsustainable structures, as grant-funded changes (like increases in full-time staff) cannot be sustained without further grants. In these cases, one-off grants that fund short-term projects, such as election monitoring, or investing in IT infrastructure may be a better use of grant money since they increase the capability of global south NGO's without also increasing their long-term dependence on grants.

It will be one of my goals in this project to recommend one-off funding that grants "venture capital" to e-advocates with the express understanding that this is start-up money on the path to independence. The venture capital model also casts global south partners in the powerful role of social entrepreneur, reducing the unequal power dynamics that can arise between granters and grantees. Cheap -because it allows sustainability and financial independence - is beautiful.

categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_

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