Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Gates Project 8: Zimbabwe's Kubatana.net

Today I spoke with Bev Clark, Director of the Zimbabwean NGO Kubatana.net. Kubatana is rare in that it is an African NGO which is extremely active in the field of e-advocacy. Kubatana sends out a regular e-newsletter and e-mail alerts, facilitates workshops to train human rights defenders in the secure use of email and the Internet, hosts webpages for dozens of Zimbabwean NGO's in its Directory, and provides electronic versions of legislation being considered by the Zimbabwean Parliament. Yet, Bev is adamant that the internet is not the be-all and end-all of advocacy. In fact, she says that the internet can make NGO's "lazy" as it allows then to assume that sending out an e-mail or SMS message can replace work in the field.

Operating as an NGO in Zimbabwe is uniquely difficult because of the political and economics situation there. According to the international human rights organization Freedom House:
Zimbabwe's descent into the ranks of the world's most repressive states continued unabated in 2005, the result of a significant decline in both political rights and civil liberties for Zimbabweans. The government of long-time president Robert Mugabe persisted in cracking down on independent media, civil society, and political opponents.... The country's economic crisis worsened, with rampant inflation, massive unemployment, near expulsion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and potentially severe shortages of basic foodstuffs.
Apart from the harassment that regime critics face, the effectiveness of NGO's is also negatively affected by the hyperinflation, which reached an astounding rate of 1,204.6% in August 2006. Hyperinflation not only affects people's ability to buy food and pay rent but also affects their ability to access information. Both internet cafes and newspapers are now prohibitively expensive as wages have not kept pace with rising prices, this in a country already facing 80% unemployment.

As such, the barriers to e-advocacy adoption in Zimbabwe are especially high. Internet access is extremely expensive because of inflation and those that can afford to go to an internet cafe usually check e-mail rather than taking the time to browse the web. NGO's whose e-advocacy initiatives that are seem as overly threatening may be targeted for harassment by the government.

However, there are also more easily controllable human factors that limit e-advocacy adoption. In many Zimbabwean NGO's, only the director has access to the internet. IT resources within NGO's are often not accessible to staff within the Information Department, which comprises e-advocacy activities. When he is out of the office he locks the door, preventing other staff from getting online. In addition, most NGO's do not see the value of e-advocacy, and thus do not devote scarce man-hours and and financial resources to pursuing it.

In order to increase use of e-advocacy in Zimbabwe, Bev suggested giving grants to NGO's with proven track records in the field of e-advocacy so they could train other NGO's in e-advocacy techniques. However, training alone does not ensure adoption. This is due to brain-drain and a lack of knowledge-sharing. Bev expressed frustration that simple ICT training is not enough because people who are trained often leave the country due to seek employment abroad, taking their training with them. Bev also liked Zack's idea of an tech R&D support system for NGOs.

It is a great challenge of this project to develop solutions that will be useful to a broad range of NGO's around the world. Can the same service help NGO's in Indonesia and Zimbabwe? I hope so.

Note: I am interested in speaking to other NGO's in the global south that are e-advocacy practioners. If your organization would like to participate in this research, please contact me at MaryCJoyce@gmail.com.
categories: internet activism_, gates project_, the "developing world"_

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