This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on August 9, 2015.
More than four years ago, I met Rakesh Kumar from Muzaffarpur. He was at a workshop for about 50 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that we had organized in that city in Bihar. An unassuming person, he approached me with much humility and asked in Bhojpuri if our organization could help build a website for his NGO called Jan Nirman Kendra. Obviously, since that was what we had organized the workshop for, I said yes. He asked, “How long would it take?” He assumed it would take months. I told him his website will be ready in less than a week if he provides content and photos. He chose to name the websitejannirmanrakesh.org.
After a year, he called us and said he would like to organize a workshop with another set of 50 NGOs that he had motivated to build websites. He also said, “I would like to change my NGO’s website to jnkbihar.org as I feel our focus is all of Bihar.” Today, his NGO is stationed at jnkindia.org. The website hosts all of the NGO’s annual reports, names of the director board members and updates on latest activities, accompanied by photos.
Kumar has a social media page, where he shares photos clicked in agricultural fields by the members of his organization. Some posts are about new seeds they have found and want to protect. JNK has organized several NGO workshops for us and helped no less than 100 NGOs in Bihar to go online. Beyond Web presence, the ripple effect includes widespread, practical and functional digital literacy and social media outreach. All this has generated tremendous respect for their work, resulting in more work, additional funding and participation in local governance.
Take another case: Safa, a not-for-profit organization from a slum-like cluster in Hyderabad. I knew its founder Rubina Mazhar even before the organization was officially started. I told them that as soon as they register, we would help them with an online presence. Even before registering the organization, they started operating with women of a basti in Hyderabad in education and livelihood creation. They struggled a lot, not only to break the cultural barrier to get women out of their homes to work and get basic education. However, there was no financial support at all.
Somehow, Mazhar came forward to make the activities and objectives of the NGO available online; and suddenly, within a few months, she got foreign volunteers interested in working with her organization. She could also raise funds from a financier in the UK. Today, Safa has not only generated a decent image in the basti of Hyderabad, but also attracts a fair number of women. It has created a sustainable handicraft and apparel business and established a vocational training centre where all adolescent women get training in English speaking and comprehensive ICT (Internet and communication technologies) with the guarantee of a job. Safa products can also be seen online for those who would like to order in bulk looking at the catalogue.
What is very interesting about getting NGOs online is that it has a significant multiplier effect. One effect is that in an atmosphere where the accountability and transparency of NGOs are facing questions, going online, openly sharing the organization’s details and proactive disclosure—which is a clause under the right to information law, even though it does not apply to NGOs—will help.
Secondly, by opening a website, the NGO goes through the entire process of digital literacy. It makes them understand the necessity of digital tools, computers, online jargon, Internet technology and media, the nuances of social media, uploading and downloading, digital photography, digital scanning, the use of email and lately even selfies.
Our experience says that taking one NGO online makes at least 50 people digitally literate. These include their staff, volunteers, partners, peers and the people around them. Besides, at least 5-10% of the NGOs take digital intervention to the next level. For example, there is an NGO called Sapna in Alwar, Rajasthan. Our first interaction with them was about a website, and gradually, they progressed their learning to have a full-fledged ICT centre, a rural business processing unit and campus-wide Wi-Fi.
Similarly, out of the 5,000 NGOs that we have helped go online, many have adopted social media, raised funds through crowdsourcing, used e-commerce to sell products, established computer centres and digital services centres, adopted relevant digital tools for advocacy, monitoring and evaluation and, most importantly, used digital media platforms to market themselves.
The third biggest outcome in taking NGOs online is in helping the country overcome online information poverty. There is no denying that India is one of the poorest countries when it comes to online content. There is a huge paucity of Indian content online when compared to Western countries. Besides government and business entities, NGOs could be the largest institutional establishment that could convert their activities and available content published online. This will not only enrich the Internet with relevant content from India, especially from the hinterland, it would also balance the presence of bottom-up content, which would be reliable, trusted and about communities.
Considering the not more than 10-20% out of the 3.1 million NGOs in India are accountable, if they ensure their presence online, we are talking about 600,000 NGOs. This helps 30 million people become functionally digitally literate, leading to large communities enjoying basic rights to access and opportunity to produce information.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of the Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also a member of the screening committee of community radio at the ministry of information and broadcasting.
Tweet him @osamamanzar