This lively one-day conference, entitled The Power of Information: New Technologies for Philanthropy and Development, held in London on 15 September, brought together people from the philanthropy sphere with those who are applying new technologies in the field to mobilize communities, help them share knowledge, promote best practice, and hold governments and donors to account.
After a welcome address by Fran Perrin of the Indigo Trust, and a warm up by Kenyan practitioner Philip Thigo (SODNET), the opening keynote address was delivered by Richard Allan – a UK legislator and Director of Policy for Facebook. They set the context and overarching message of the event: that technology no longer exists in a separate world – it is no longer the arcane domain of technology specialists struggling over boxes and wires. The infrastructure is there for anyone to use, from widespread mobile phone networks even in Africa’s poorest countries, to freely available information and data handling applications and social media tools. It is all so new that, as Fran Perrin put it, ‘there are no experts’ – people are harnessing the power of these new technologies because they are learning by doing, and donors need to get behind this new paradigm. Collaborating, sharing experiences and being entrepreneurial has never been more important. This entails a level of risk that donors and funders must be willing to share.
Donors were urged to fund not just the more glamorous and photogenic projects (of the ‘Ipads for Africa’ type) but also projects that are enabling – from basic research to collaboration to putting technology in the hands of the people, without too many strings attached.
The rest of the day featured an exciting combination of examples from the field and panel discussion about their wider implications. Of the many interesting breakout sessions available, I attended the ones on ‘Transparency, Accountability and Democracy’ and on ‘Youth, Empowerment and Education’. The former centred on how technology alone, all other things being equal, can improve outcomes by putting information in the hands of the people – a fact backed by research and illustrated by examples. It can also be a catalyst for social and political change, as events this year have amply demonstrated. There are however caveats and dangers – technology is not an end in itself and it is not a panacea that can solve every problem. For the African context it was highlighted that the mobile phone, even in its more humble ‘feature phone’ incarnation, is key to many solutions as it is widespread and reaches far beyond broadband internet can (although on this front too progress is being made and access is improving). Philip Thigo emphasized that we should continue to demand that governments do their job – ‘we exist because [government] systems fail’ was his maxim. Philanthropy and aid money alone can neither fund nor organize permanent, long-lasting solutions to Africa’s problems.
The youth empowerment session presented varied experiences ranging from using technology to help young people in West Africa deal with sex and reproductive health, to how not to use ICT in the classroom in Tajikistan, to how young people used technology to help them clear their neighbourhood of rats, mobilizing the whole community and gaining the attention of their local government in the process.
A donor panel brought together all the main strands of discussion during the day. Issues discussed from a donor perspective included speed of reaction – the need to enable people with vision and human capital to put things together quickly, then ‘suck it and see’, how to deal with governments (they often need educating before they can even form a view on a specific initiative), the problem of atomization of efforts and the move from grantmaking to investing. As Marjan Besuijen from Hivos put it, ‘forget the digital divide … focus on development’. She explained that Hivos is now willing to work not just with NGOs but also with individuals – something that traditional concepts of ‘due diligence’ are not best suited for. Fran Perrin ended the donor discussion on a cautionary note: let’s not patronize the developing world by telling them that technology in their case is ‘for development’ – they want from it the same things we in the West want (including iTunes).
Jorge Solis is general manager of Alliance