Although I’ve only been writing about the social mobile long tail for a couple of years, the thinking behind it has developed over a fifteen year period where, working on and off in a number of African countries, I’ve witnessed at first hand the incredible contribution that some of the smallest and under-resourced NGOs make in solving some of the most pressing social and environmental problems. Most of these NGOs are hardly known outside the communities where they operate, and many fail to raise even the smallest amounts of funding in an environment where they compete with some of the biggest and smartest charities on the planet.
Long tail NGOs are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they’re trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape – not just geographically, but also the language, culture and daily challenges of the people.
After fifteen years it should come as no surprise to hear that most of my work today is aimed at empowering the long tail, as it has been since kiwanja.net came into being in 2003, followed by FrontlineSMS a little later in 2005. Of course, a single local NGO with a piece of software isn’t going to solve a wider national healthcare problem, but how about a hundred of them? Or a thousand? The default position for many people working in ICT4D is to build centralised solutions to local problems – things that ‘integrate’ and ‘scale’. With little local ownership and engagement, many of these top-down approaches fail to appreciate the culture of technology and its users. Technology can be fixed, tweaked, scaled and integrated – building relationships with the users is much harder and takes a lot longer. Trust has to be won. And it takes even longer to get back if it’s lost.
My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some ‘cloud‘. This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.
Here’s a video from Lynman Bacolor, a FrontlineSMS user in the Philippines, talking about how he uses the software in his health outreach work. What you see here is a very simple technology doing something which, to him, is significant.
In short, Lynman’s solution works because it was his problem, not someone elses. And it worked because he solved it. And going by the video he’s happy and proud, as he should be. Local ownership? You bet. \o/
Now, just imagine what a thousand Lynman’s could achieve with a low cost laptop each, FrontlineSMS and a modest text messaging budget?