This article was first published in the Mint newspaper on August 26, 2015.
Amid all the negativity about the roles and responsibilities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), mostly from the government and in many cases the business sector, one fact that nobody can take away from the non-profits is that theirs is perhaps the only voice shouting out loud when there are matters of concern, causes that need attention, and issues that affect civil society.
What is interesting is that there is a whole world that has opened up for NGOs, and that is in the form of digital media.
Last week, I was submerged in a world of goodness: the good that has been created by hundreds of non-profit organizations across India, and all over South Asian countries. The unique experience of this goodness is how NGOs have been using digital tools—right from the Internet, to social media, mobile, apps, podcasts, video, camera, projector, WhatsApp, messaging and, in many cases, biometrics, e-commerce, social commerce, online fundraising, peer-to-peer crowd-sourcing, and so on.
It was in Pondicherry, and with 13 jury members to decide the winners for the e-NGO Challenge awards, we spent about 24 hours, almost non-stop, to go through 200-plus NGO profiles and their activities on how they use digital tools for their organizational efficiency, campaign, outreach, donations and the causes they work for.
Meet Lha Charitable Trust in the hills of Dharamsala. This Tibetan organization and institute has not left any digital media option untried. They have an online magazine called Contact, they raise funds online from across the world, they reach out to the diaspora through a Tibetan language website and share community information including environmental issues within Tibet. They have a YouTube channel with hundreds of videos and films, and they are ready to launch an online fair trade shop of the items produced by exiled Tibetan producers to support their livelihood.
Let’s go to Rajasthan to meet Annakshetra. Their messages include “save food and save life” and “we can end hunger”. With a 24×7 helpline and website, Annakshetra is making peer-to-peer connections—between those producing too much food, and may therefore be wasting it, and those who need them. Their online presence also gives options for donation, becoming volunteers and organizing community feasting. Their website claims they have served about a million meals to the poorest of the poor.
A little further in Rajasthan exists another beautiful organization called Rupayan Sansthan, established to carry on the legacy of the late Komal Kothari, the famous folklorist and oral historian who single-handedly documented and tried to save the dying folk arts of western Rajasthan. Using digital media and other interactive tools, Rupayan has established Arna Jharna—the desert museum with a mission. According to the NGO, “instead of being enclosed in a box, it celebrates the open spaces of the desert, including its flora and fauna, as part of a larger holistic exploration of the museum as a place of learning. The Arna-Jharna museum can be described as a process of interactive learning experiences linked to traditional knowledge systems”.
In the heart of India’s financial capital, there is a quiet voice that is emerging loud and clear—that of Sounds of Silence. Its website says it is “India’s first technology-based NGO”. Its mission is to use digital tools for the deaf and mute. It has already tested and launched a mobile app for the deaf and mute for conversing among themselves and with any other person.
Across the border, there is a revolution taking place in Nepal in the name of Accountability Lab. The non-profit aims to create a society of accountable citizens and position-holders. Its website proclaims that “empowering citizens to build the world’s best tool for integrity” is its objective. “More than 17x the amount the world spends on international aid. Corruption is an accountability problem. We empower committed change makers called ‘accountapreneurs’, who know best how to build accountability and transform their communities,” it elaborates. The non-profit also has a crowdsourcing portal.
In our eastern neighbour, Bangladesh Knowledge Management Initiative, with support from USAID and Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs and Bangladesh Center for Communication Programs has developed an amazing e-learning web platform for professional training in social and behaviour change communication.
And finally, there are two examples from Pakistan that took my breath away. The Citizen Archive of Pakistan is a world-class portal of the digital documentation and archive of the oral history of Pakistan, listed and digitally displayed on Google Cultural Institute. The portal documents the birth of Pakistan, has a special project on minorities in the country and galleries of photos, videos and story-telling records of various cultural programmes and festivals.
Another great example is a crowdsourcing platform called Transparent Hands, which defines itself as “a global crowdfunding platform that builds a personal and trusted bond between patients and donors while ensuring complete transparency”. It has raised more than 6.4 million Pakistani rupees for surgeries.
The eNGO Challenge platform, which aggregates best practices of NGOs using digital tools for good, is actually showing a world where the impact of digital media, e-commerce, e-learning, crowdsourcing, mobiles and apps can be seen making a more equitable society where dependency on government and business is lesser and citizen participation is higher. In times to come, I expect the inclusion of digital tools in the lives of NGOs will not only make them become a mass producer of digital content but will also help make the voices of civil society louder and equal to those of government and businesses.