Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Gates Project 16: We Are All "Developing"

At the beginning of this week I took a break from my non-stop interviewing to read two important reports, InfoDev's Open Access Models, about connectivity solutions in Africa, and dotOrganize's Online Technology for Social Change.

The Open Access report was an informational bootcamp that gave me a good sense of the technological, political, and market-based reasons for Africa's digital poverty. It looked not only at infrastructural problems (Africa has only one major fiber optic cable linking it to the rest of the world) but also the historic government-supported telecom monopolies that prevent market competition from working effectively to bring down prices and improve services.

The dotOrganize Report was very useful, not to mention surprising. I found that the global south and global north are not so different when it comes to e-advocacy - all regions of the world are struggling to use technology strategically in their advocacy. According to a survey of US and Canadian organizations, many organizations surveyed did not use basic e-advocacy tools:

-39% do not use e-newsletter
-47% do not accept donations online

In addition, a majority of organizations have not integrated cutting-edge technologies into their activism

-only 3% use podcasting
-only 4% use public wikis
-only 9% use SMS

In addition, organizations in the US and Canada identify lack of time, money, and trained staff as the top reasons for this not adopting technology, problems that would also resonate in the global north. Also, the majority of US and Canadian organizations that do use technology in their advocacy use e-mail or have a basic website, which is the same case in the global south.

This is not to say that the civil societies of the global north and global south face precisely the same technology problems. Clearly civil societies in the global south must contend with very limited budgets, low internet penetration among supporters, inadequate connectivity infrastructure, and even political contrainsts on freedom of expression.

Rather than claiming a parallel sitution, I am pointing out that the global south will not be playing "catch up" to the global north in integrating e-advocacy strategies into their work. No country in the world has a "developed" e-advocacy environment. In this field we are all "developing."

Moreover, the global south has the opportunity to innovate and leapfrog, by-passing the global north by creating low-cost new advocacy methods and solutions. This capacity is clearest in the field of mobile phones, which have been used for major political organizing in the global south as early as 2001, when SMS was used to rally a protest that helped toppled President Joseph Estrada. (President Estrada himself called it a "coup de text.") Because a relatively high penetration rates for mobile phones, as compared to low penetration rates for internet, the mobile phone is a tool whose potential as a tools for e-advocacy in the global south is just beginning. It could be a defining tool for resource-poor NGO's looking for a way to organize on a mass level.

Or not. That's the great thing about innovation, you just don't know where it's leading. And I see no reason why the global south can't lead this revolution.

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

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