Ring, ring… The grassroots is calling

One thing I really enjoy about kiwanja’s work is how it encourages NGOs to come up with their own solutions to their own problems, how it focuses on the grassroots and how it seeks to help those organisations looking to help themselves. While other initiatives appear more interested in what people are doing with technology, a large part of what interests me is how we empower organisations who aren’t there yet – those that have the ideas but lack the capacity to see those ideas through. For example, for every NGO using mobile technology in their work there are dozens, if not hundreds, who aren’t.

I’ve been fortunate over the past few weeks to be involved in the judging of a couple of competitions, and by far the most enjoyable has been nGOmobile (and not because it’s one of my own projects). While other competitions are largely dominated by industry players and middle- and heavyweight NGOs, nGOmobile has been unashamedly aimed at the small guy. Having spent a lot of time living and working in the developing world, I remain convinced that one of the best ways to solve many of the chronic problems in these countries is through grassroots empowerment. As William Easterly points out in The White Man’s Burden – a topic I blogged about in the summer – development’s traditional ‘top down’ approach has had little tangible return on its hundreds of billions (or trillions?) of dollars investment.

One of the really nice things about nGOmobile is that NGOs get the chance to win a prize based on what they’re going to do, rather than what they’ve done. While this makes the competition a little unique, it does make it more of a challenge from an organisational point of view.

The competition was launched in October, and ran for three months. Getting news out to grassroots NGOs, many of whom struggle with their own connectivity issues, was never going to be easy. But thanks to some fantastic support from other mobile-related sites and bloggers, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Nokia, Ore’s Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, news broke fast, and a feature on the BBC World Service Digital Planet programme made a big impact. By the time the competition closed over seventy NGOs had submitted entries. Other, higher-profile and bigger-budget, better-established ICT competitions would have been happy to hit anywhere near that.

Analysing the results of the competition makes fascinating reading, as did my first analysis of FrontlineSMS usage last month. What we’ve done, in essence, is taken the pulse of the grassroots NGO community. Where are they working? What is their focus? What concerns them? How would they solve a problem? How would mobile technology make their lives easier? What would the impact be if they had it? The pie chart above does indeed tell an interesting story.

Health-related work came out on top at 19% – perhaps not a huge surprise – but conservation, running it close at 18%? That was a surprise. The conservation community has been a little slower than most to grasp the benefits of mobile technology, but it looks as though things are beginning to change. The human rights community has been increasingly active in this area, with sites such as ICT4Peace and New Tactics taking a lead, and agriculture- and fisheries- related projects have been responsible for some of the higher-profile mobile-based solutions, including Manobi, TradeNet and the 2006 WSIS Award winner, East African Fish Auctions. Entries in the competition reflect this.

Interest in nGOmobile among the blogging community, grassroots NGOs and the mobile industry has been fantastic, and discussions are already underway on ways to scale the competition in 2008 and increase its own – and the winners – profile. It’s incredible to think that it was only launched four months ago.

The grassroots were given the opportunity to speak. And boy, are they calling