Leading the charge: Innovative uses of technology and information to connect funders to communities
Daniel Ben-Horin, founder of TechSoup Global, opened the session by highlighting an interesting difference between US and European attitudes towards the use of technology. In the US they lead with the technology, coming up with a great idea for an ‘app’ and then thinking about how this can be used to change the world. In Europe they indentify a social problem and then try and work out how technology can be used to solve that problem.
The social problem being addressed by Gyula Vamosi of Kaskosan, the first speaker, is that of engagement with the Roma people. Gyula argued that there are no roma people in the roma movement, NGOs are doing good work on their behalf but the top down, international approach has led to a lack of engagement at a local level. Kaskosan, named after a traditional roma greeting, was created with the aim of trying to reposition the movement through the use of internet technology, which is being used to create a platform to connect people and share romanipe (roma culture) and articulate a common identity. This website allows people to create social networks made up of individuals and groups where they can share music and videos across a multi-language platform which is key in connecting such a diverse group.
The large number of members the site has and the visits it receives are testament to the fact that the internet has proved successful in connecting roma people all across Europe, because it too is not constrained by geography.
Another speaker, Gabriel Rissola, Dynamic Organization Thinking, talked about the problems faced by female migrants across Europe. He spoke of the ‘double exclusion’ they faced in the form of the language barrier and the fact that qualifications gained in one country are not always recognized in another. This had lead to a lot of these women being unemployed or employed in minimum wage positions. ICT is helping to tackle this issue in a number of ways. Their study found that communication was the number one use of the internet amongst this group, and whilst the majority of this was with family back home a significant proportion was to new people in the local area; thus improving the level of social inclusion. It also found that the second most common use of the internet was for job searching – which is enabling these women to apply for a wider range of positions.
Studies have shown that across all sections of society greater eSkills has led to greater employability, so the work being done by NGOs to educate people in computer use is, in the words of Microsoft’s commitment, “enabling people throughout the world to realize their full potential.”
There were concerns raised that ICT can be a double edge sword, it can connect people or be a tool to help people reach their potential but it is inferior to face to face communications, with many key decision makers interested in dealing with the top 50 people in a given field not the thousands that can come with online projects. There was also the concern that the increasing use of ICT is having a negative effect on traditional civil society, such as protests and town hall meetings. All of these are valid concerns, ICT will not address all of an organization’s needs, but that is ok because it should never be used exclusively. The work being done online should compliment and supplement the work being done offline rather than replace it.
I feel that online and offline can really benefit each other, if the balance is maintained. ICT can be used to forge new relationships and strengthen old ones, between people and between institutions, but this can be as precursor to or follow up from more traditional meetings or conferences (although I do like the idea of more e-conferences to save on both costs and carbon emissions). The people who traditionally attended public protests can also protest online, and people who are engaged online can be inspired to real action – look at the effect of public mobilization through Facebook. Gyula pointed to NGOs who have connected with individuals via his site, seen them in person and then ultimately found them employment – a great example of online action leading to offline change.
I believe this kind of balance is possible because communication and interaction is the core of what people do in both the online and offline world. There is a certain reluctance people feel in moving more towards technology but I think it is because we focus too much on the technology itself and not enough on the ideal behind it. There is a harmony that can be reached if we embrace the IT without forgetting the C!
David Drewery is the Publishing Officer at Alliance magazine.