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Archive for April, 2010

Henri from Plan Benin training on SMS reporting.

In February I was in Benin to support staff to pilot the idea of using SMS reporting (FrontlineSMS) and digital mapping (Ushahidi) to strengthen local and national systems for reporting, tracking and responding to violence against children.  We conducted 2 workshops in mid-February with youth leaders, frontline staff, community members, local authorities from the Center for Social Protection (CPS) and representatives from the Ministry of the Family to get things started.

For some more background, check out my previous posts on the Violence against Children (VAC) project, the questions we asked ourselves before getting started on the SMS and mapping initiative, and the February workshops in Benin and what we learned there.

Since February, staff in Benin have been following up with workshop participants and with local authorities and institutions, including: the Prefect, the Mayors, community supervisors, animators of the children’s/youth media clubs, headmasters and other school authorities and the CPS.  The youth in one community did a radio program about violence against children and talked about SMS reporting. They also designed an information sheet that’s been hung up all over the town to encourage the population to report cases of violence.

Henri, Plan Benin’s ICT Director who facilitated at the Benin workshops, went to Togo to replicate the training with staff and youth there.  He and Carmen, who manages the overall VAC project in Benin, have also been observing and collecting feedback on the system to see where it needs tweaking.  They have put a project plan together for the next 6 months or so.

Carmen the VAC project coordinator in Benin.

Observations that Henri and Carmen shared and some thoughts we have about resolving them:

Issue:

  • Most people call instead of sending SMS

Hmmm….

  • Why?  Habit?  Literacy?  Unclear indications of what to do or unclear expectations of what the system is for?  We need to find out more about this.  It would be good to know exactly what kind of volume we are talking about total in terms of SMS vs calls. (I will update this post when I find out.)
  • Should we start taking calls too then? And are there resources and capacity to manage calls in addition to FrontlineSMS (which is automated)? How are we linking with the Child Help Line in Benin?
  • Could both calls and SMS be administered in the Ushahidi system?  Eg., Just as an administrator needs to review any SMS’s that come into Ushahidi  before approving them, someone could be tasked with inputting information from a phone call into the Ushahidi back end to then trigger the rest of the process (verification, response, etc). And how would that impact on pulling data out of the system for decision making?  (See this post for more information on how the system is currently conceived)

Issue:

  • Some people are sending a re-call SMS (asking us to return the call)

Hmmm….

  • We need to find out why people are sending re-call messages instead of SMS’s.  Because in the current set-up, text messages are not free?  Literacy issues? Because our system looks like something else they’ve done where re-call was the norm?  Something else?
  • If it’s due to low literacy or language issues, how can we open the system to those who cannot read/write or who do not use French?
  • Plan Benin is discussing with the GSM provider to find a way to send back an automatic reply SMS informing people not to call but to send a message, and to take this opportunity to indicate in the message what is expected as information.  But if literacy/language is the issue, we will not have solved anything by doing this…. Sounds like we really need to make sure calling is an option, and that good integration with the national Child Help Line is a real priority.
  • Plan Benin is also negotiating getting a “green line” or free short code, so that might resolve part of this.

Issue:

  • Many people are not using the key word ‘HALTE’ (stop) at the beginning of the message, meaning that the commands don’t trigger the messages to automatically send the information to Ushahidi.  (In the current system, each SMS should include the key word ‘HALTE’.  This key word triggers a “thanks for your message” automatic response from FrontlineSMS, and the forwarding of the message to the Ushahidi back end for subsequent management and follow up by local authorities.)

Hmmm….

  • Staff noticed that most (but not all) of the messages without the key word ‘’HALTE’’ contained the word ‘enfant’ (child). Henri has added ‘enfant’ as a key word in addition to ‘HALTE’ — and says it is working fine.  So we will assess if this helps.
  • Another alternative would be to not use any keywords – we will need to look into whether we can set FrontlineSMS up so that any SMS that goes to that number gets auto forwarded to Ushahidi.

Early draft of a poster promoting violence reporting by SMS

Issue:

  • Most of the messages are too vague to find the place and the victim for responding (and people do not have GPS enabled phones).  We have suggested that an SMS report should contain certain information [HALTE+type of violence+where it's happening (eg., school, home, etc)+village name+district+age+sex+name of child if known], but people don’t follow the suggested format.

Hmmm….

  • How can we simplify it or better explain the type of information that’s needed?  Something we need to dig deeper into and consult with users to figure out.  Carmen’s take is that we are at the beginning of the process and we need to be patient and sensitize a lot so that people get used to the idea and understand how things work.

Issue:

  • Compatible FLSMS phones and modems are very difficult to find.  We were only able to find one phone that was compatible in Benin (a used one) because newer phone models are not compatible and the modems we found refused to connect.

Hmmm….

  • We really need to get this resolved since the entire system in Benin rests on one phone. What if it stops working?  It’s really difficult to expand the project without a larger set of phone/modem options.  We’ll work with the FrontlineSMS forum or staff (both are always super helpful on this kind of thing) in the next couple weeks to figure out how to resolve the compatibility issues, because there are modems available in West Africa that should be compatible, but that we couldn’t get to function.

Issue:

  • We planned for community response teams to be able to subscribe to alerts on Ushahidi, so that when there is an incident reported in the zone where they work, they would be alerted by SMS and could set the follow up process in motion.  But we haven’t been able to get the alerts working on Ushahidi or set up email reporting there.

Hmmm….

  • We discussed with the Ushahidi team and the problem was that not all the strings of code in Ushahidi had been translated into French yet.  Thanks to @theresac and @penelopeinparis, who volunteered to translate a load of strings, we are getting everything into French, and Henry at Ushahidi is helping get alerts working.  We still need to finalize all the elements on our Ushahidi page however and get everything working.  We’d also like to customize our Ushahidi page to make it our own, similar to the customizing that Voices of Kibera has done with their Ushahidi instance.

Any additional thoughts or help on the above issues are most welcome!


As for next steps, Henri and Carmen shared their plans:

  • Present the system to political and administrative authorities, including: head of the Brigade for the Protection of Minors, juvenile judges, Ministry of the Family’s Director for Children and Adolescents, Director of Family Programs, Minister of ICTs, cabinet and authorities who regulate telecommunications, Ministry of the Interior and Public Security, National Assembly, mayors and prefects, schools and teacher-parent committees, community authorities, media
  • Train staff, government partners, school and parent committees, and local NGOs on the reporting system, including a 1-day workshop with all Plan staff and a 1 day workshop with local NGO partners, schools and government staff
  • Accompany child protection committees and organized youth groups to use the system.  This will be done by holding sessions with organized children and youth groups at village level to reinforce and raise awareness on the reporting system; training child protection committees to use the new reporting system; holding one day sessions each month with the village level child protection system staff to discuss follow up on reports that have come in, and installing FrontlineSMS in each local site and adding local focal points as Ushahidi administrators
  • Strengthen awareness in the public and with leaders to support violence reporting by developing a communications plan to generate awareness on the issue of violence, the importance of reporting, and the mechanisms to report via SMS; supporting youth to use arts and theater to raise awareness on the issue of violence against children; talking with religious leaders and village chiefs; creating television, radio, newspaper and web advertisements to reach the general public and decision makers
  • Secure a free short code (target:  by May)
  • Conduct a national level evaluation workshop with involved local and national actors (in 6 months)

As we move forward, more questions will surely come up and we’ll need to continually tweak things. But I feel that we’re off to a good start. The fact that people are calling in and SMS’ing in is a good sign already that the program has some potential, and that people are willing to report violence against children.

—————-

Related posts on Wait… What?

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Fostering a new political consciousness on violence against children

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Meeting in the middle

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our stolen flowers, still going strong after almost 18 years.... (2009, Barrio Candelaria)

My son turns 18 today, and as always, when my kids have a birthday, it makes me think back to the day they were born and I get a little lost in the memories.

When I gave birth to my son, it was 1992 and I had been living in El Salvador for almost 1 year with my husband, Memo.  The Peace Accords had been signed a few months earlier, on January 16, ending a long and bloody civil war.  We lived in Barrio Candelaria, an old barrio in downtown San Salvador where Memo had grown up. My in-laws lived in the ‘meson’ about a half a block down from where we lived.  Memo was employed as a mechanic, making almost $100 a month and I gave evening English classes a couple times a week to the daughters of the wealthy family that lived in the Barrio (the ones who owned the corner store) to help pay for tortillas and drinks to accompany our meals.  I spent my days mopping, cooking, washing and hanging the clothes out, tending to the plants in the little cement garden in back of our house, hanging out with my mother-in-law, and doing a lot of reading.  It was a nice couple years’ break after college.  At that point we didn’t really have any plans. We were just living day to day.

Niña Alicia and I (2009)

The morning of the day that Daniel was born, I had my last visit to immigration where I picked up my residency papers.  My mother in law, Niña Alicia, walked over with me. On the way back, we stopped to pick up a ‘faja’ (girdle) which she insisted was necessary for after the baby was born.  She said that when a woman gives birth, she gets air inside which puffs up her stomach, and so she needs to wear a girdle afterwards.  I wasn’t convinced, but I would always go along with her ideas when they didn’t seem to do any outward harm.

After we picked out a faja (which I realized I would probably never wear once I realized what a faja was) we made our way home, collecting (stealing) snippets of plants from the nicer houses along the way to plant when we got back.  We always did that.  Niña Alicia had an amazing green thumb, so we always had a nice garden, even though my father in law wouldn’t allow us to break the cement to plant anything in the ground.

We’d left the house around 7 a.m. to do our rounds at immigration and got back at 11.  Memo worked in the mechanic shop about 2 blocks from the house, and I was supposed to walk over with his lunch around then. But I seemed to have a bit of a stomach ache.  It was 9 days earlier than my April 30 due date, so I didn’t realize it was labor kicking in.  I laid down on the bed for a bit to see if it would go away, our cat, Irola, curled up next to me.  Cats always know when something’s going on.  After a bit, I got up and made my way over to Niña Alicia’s house and told her I thought we needed to get the midwife, and could she please let Memo know that it was time (and take him his lunch).

Daniel and Memo

Early on I had decided that I wanted a home birth.  My other options were the public maternity hospital or the social security hospital, and at that time my Spanish wasn’t so great. I worried that the male doctors would come over and gawk at me out of curiosity – I’d certainly had enough men staring, groping and asking rude questions while fully clothed and even while very pregnant – and being a spectacle at the hospital didn’t appeal to me at all.  I also didn’t want to sit on a bed with several other women in the crowded maternity ward waiting for a bed to give birth in.  I didn’t want to give birth alone, and no family members were allowed in.  I didn’t want to be medicated and didn’t trust that they would listen to me about that at the hospital. And I wanted to exclusively breastfeed and keep my baby with me, and I had heard that the hospital always took the babies away and gave them a bottle of formula right away. I had a bunch of books about midwifery and birth. I read them voraciously with the idea that I could learn enough to practically give birth by myself if necessary.

The midwife, Niña Lita, and her daughter got to the house within about an hour. Niña Lita was a wizened old woman with crinkly eyes and a sweet smile.  She said she was a Mormon, but she would invoke the Virgin Mary before she worked on anything important.  She had been coming to the house for the past several months to check in on me and to ‘sobarme’ (massage my belly).  She’d look up to the sky, say some prayers to La Virgen, warm her hands with scented oils and start massaging. She’d tell me she felt the head here, the arm there.  Her goal was to help the baby get into the right position.  (A few years after, there was a big public education campaign against midwives and traditional practices, saying that this was a bad thing to do, but it doesn’t really seem too harmful to me.)  The monthly visits helped us get to know each other and develop trust and a bond.

When she arrived to the house to help with the birth, Niña Lita patiently watched and waited and softly encouraged me.  Luckily my labor was only about 4 hours total.  I kept waiting for Memo to show up, but he never did.  Later I realized that they didn’t want him to be there.  They said that if there were too many people around, the baby would get embarrassed and wouldn’t come out.

Daniel was born right around 3 p.m.  Niña Lita cut the cord, cleaned him up and wrapped him in a blanket while my mother in law ran to the corner store and borrowed the metal scale that they used to weigh beans, rice and sugar because I insisted on knowing how much Daniel weighed.  Niña Lita carefully placed him on the balance while Nina Alicia held it up.  Nine and a half pounds.  About that time they let Memo come in and went on their way, saying they’d be back tomorrow to bathe Daniel with rose and rue to ward off any bad energy or bad spirits.

The next day after the bathing process (rose and rue is one of the most delicious scents in the world) we went to the Health Center to get Daniel’s first check up and vaccines.  A couple weeks later, we went to the City Hall to register his birth.  At that time they wouldn’t let anyone in dressed in shorts, so Memo had to wait outside while I registered Daniel and people looked on in disapproval because a father is supposed to take on this responsibility.

I had the luxury of spending the next 40 days resting with Daniel.  My mother-in-law went to the market, bought cocoa beans, and ground them into fresh homemade chocolate to drink hot to bring down my milk.  I remember eating a lot of mangos de leche too, those small yellow ones that are in season in April.  There were certain foods prohibited for the 40 day period, including eggs and beans and anything strong smelling or strong flavored.

Every day I was supposed to give Daniel a spoonful of garlic oil that Niña Alicia had prepared so that my breast milk wouldn’t upset his stomach, but I only pretended to do that.  I was also instructed to tie a ‘faja’ around Daniel’s waist (a folded piece of cotton) to keep his new belly button clean and avoid any flies or germs getting on it, and also to keep his belly button from being an outie (I stopped doing that after a day or so because I was worried it would get infected and figured it needed some air to dry out — ironically he has an outie).  I was supposed to also shape his nose and his head two times a day by rubbing baby oil on my hands, heating them over a candle, and pressing lightly to round his head and straighten his nose.

Daniel was to wear a red hat, red socks and a red bracelet with a large grey seed on it to protect him from anyone with a strong gaze who might give him ‘ojo’ (evil eye) and terrible diarrhea.  And anyone who saw him was supposed to hold him so that in case they had any underlying jealousy due to his infant beauty, it would fade out and their bad feelings wouldn’t do him any harm. I was supposed to bind him up tightly so that he would not get bowlegged, and I was scolded when I held him upright because it would make his cheeks sag down.  I had to wear socks for the 40 day period to avoid getting air in my feet which would swell my legs and stomach. I wasn’t supposed to eat dry foods like cookies or bread while breastfeeding, because the crumbs would block up the milk stream.  If I was angry or upset, I was not supposed to breast feed or the baby would get cholic.

All those rituals were something that I wasn’t sure I believed in, but they added meaning and history to Daniel’s birth.  They helped us feel that he belonged to a long line of babies that had come before, and I didn’t mind them at all.  I was surrounded by people who loved babies and wanted to hold Daniel every chance they got.

Daniel, after almost 18 years (2009, Barrio Candelaria)

We didn’t have any money, so we didn’t have any of those typical things that accompany babies in many families.  We had no bottles, diaper bags, disposable diapers, baby food, high chairs, strollers, infant seats, cribs, car seats, playpens, jumpy chairs or the like.  As he grew, Daniel continued to sleep in our bed, and when he started eating table food, he would sit on our laps and eat from our plates. He was held and carried until he could walk, and then he walked until he was tired and was carried again.  He was never strapped in and confined – he learned boundaries without physical restraint. And I have a little theory — that this helped him learn to manage freedom and establish internal boundaries and limits.  (Don’t get me started on parents who put leashes on their kids!)

Daniel played outside in the alleyway. He got dirty. He got scraped and bullied.  But there was always a neighbor around to call over to one of us:  ‘Niña Liiiindaa, Daniel is playing in the dirty water!’ ‘Niña Aliiii, Daniel is jumping up and down on an ant hill!’

When we moved back to the US in 2001 and I saw women struggling to manage work and day care and all the accessories associated with babies, I realized how privileged we were in those early years.  Daniel talks about those days too. He realizes how lucky he is to have grown up in the Barrio, like those little snippets of plants Nina Alicia and I would pick up on our long walks and that still thrive in front of her house, 18 years later.

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Yesterday I inadvertently clicked on a link to the first blog post by Talesfromthehood that I think I ever read. The post starts by saying ‘There is just no way around the critique that aid is ultimately about imposing change from outside….you’ve got to make your peace with that reality.’  (Not what I like to hear).  Tales goes on to say that we need to better define the term ‘bottom up‘ development and concludes that we may really not be talking about ‘bottom up‘ development at all, but more about ‘meeting in the middle‘.

The idea of imposing change from the outside is a little uncomfortable sounding when you normally think of your work as ‘bottom up‘, and you have seen the countless problems that ‘top down‘ approaches create.  But funny that Tales happened to include a link to that particular post in the more recent post that I was reading, because I was in the process of writing up some notes about a community development approach that I believe is quite good.  And looking more closely, it actually sounds a lot more like ‘meeting in the middle‘ than ‘bottom up‘….

I spent this past week in a workshop with colleagues from Cameroon, Mozambique and Kenya discussing a program we’re all working on at different levels. The initiative (Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media -YETAM) aims to build skills in youth from rural areas to claim space at community, district, national and global levels to bring forth their agendas. It looks to create an environment where peers, adults, decision makers, partners, schools, and our own organization are more open and supportive to young people’s participation and ideas.  It uses arts and ICTs (both new and traditional ones) as tools for youth to examine their lives and their communities; identify assets, strengths and challenges; build skills; share their agendas; and lead actions to bring about long term and positive change.

It is clear from listening to my colleagues that ICTs in this case have been effective catalysts, tools and motivators for youth participation and voice in their communities and beyond, but that other elements were just as critical to the program’s successes.  Throughout the meeting they kept saying things like ‘we are adopting the YETAM approach for our disaster risk reduction work’ or ‘we are incorporating the YETAM approach into our strategic plans’ and ‘we are going to use the YETAM approach with new communities’.  So I asked them if they could put into words exactly what they considered ‘the YETAM approach‘ to be so that we could document it.

I furiously typed away as they discussed how they are working, and what they consider to be the elements and benefits of the ‘YETAM approach.’ And it’s probably a pretty good example of what is normally called a ‘bottom up approach‘ but which might actually be a ‘meeting in the middle approach.’  And I’m definitely OK with that.

I like the approach because it builds on good community development practices that we’ve endorsed as an organization for quite awhile. It brings in new ideas, new tools and new ways of thinking about things at the community level, but it doesn’t do so in a top-down way.  It doesn’t encourage youth to abruptly raise controversial issues and then leave them to deal with the consequences.  It thinks about implications of actions and ownership.  It addresses the ‘what’s in it for me?’ questions but doesn’t turn the answer into unsustainable handouts.  It looks to instill a sense of accountability across the board.  On top of all that, it incorporates ICT tools in an integrated way that gets youth excited about engaging and participating and helps them take a lead role in advocating for themselves.

YETAM Point Persons: Mballa (Cameroon partner), Anthony (Plan Kenya), Pedro (Plan Mozambique), Lauren (Mozambique Peace Corps Volunteer teacher), Nordino (Plan Mozambique) and Judith (Plan Cameroon)

So, ‘bottom up’, or ‘meeting in the middle’ or whatever, here’s ‘the YETAM approach':

Meetings…. Lots of them. We meet with men, with women, with children, with youth, with local authorities and district officials and relevant ministries, with partner organizations and community based organization, in short, with all those who have a stake in the initiative, to get their input.  This is an opportunity to understand what everyone wants to get out of the project, what value it adds to what they are doing or what they aspire to do, and what role everyone will play.  Then we meet with everyone all together at a community assembly. Once we pull together what everyone’s interests and contributions are, we can go forward.  This means a lot of time and a lot of meetings, which can be tiresome, but in the end it is worth doing for the long term success of the initiative.

Partnerships. Everyone brings something to the table – communities, local partners, young people, schools, teachers, local leaders, and us.  So we work to ensure that the contributions of each entity are clear and detailed, and that all sides are accountable if they don’t hold up their end of the deal. The community might contribute time or food or labor or a training space or some other resources that they have. We might contribute funds or technical advice or facilitators or the like.  Local partners might bring in technical expertise; schools or governments something else. Youth are putting in time and efforts also. To ensure that the project holds up and succeeds, we negotiate with all involved partners to see what they can contribute. If you see that people are not willing to put something into the initiative, it means that it is not of value to them.  If you push the project on people, and move it forward without it having value for them, it will be a constant struggle and a headache.  Seeing the level of commitment and interest in different community members can tell you if the initiative is a good thing for the community or not, so that you can adjust it and be sure it’s worth doing, not pursue it, or continue to work on buy in if some parts of the community are interested, but others are not.

Accountability. We set up agreements with all partners in the initiative, detailing what everyone will contribute and what they will get out of it, establishing everyone’s roles.  This is critical for accountability on all sides, and gives everyone involved a common basis for any future discussions or disputes, including if the community wants to hold us or a local partner accountable for not fulfilling our promises.

Buy-in. We don’t pay people to participate in projects or for sitting in workshops.  If you pay people to participate in a project once, you will have to pay them forever and it becomes a weak project without any real buy-in.  Our particular role in community development is not creating short term jobs, but contributing to long term sustainable improvements.  So what we do is to sit with the community and any participating partners or individuals from the very beginning and fully discuss the project with them. Then those who participate do so with a clear understanding of the set up, the longer term goals, the value to the community, and they have decided whether they want to be involved, and what is their level of commitment.

Some NGOs find that paying people to participate is an easy way to move budgets. This may help get things done in the short term, but for the type of programming that we do, it doesn’t work in the long term. It takes away people’s ownership of their community’s development if you pay them a fee to participate in their own project. So to avoid misunderstandings, everything needs to be clear before the project activities even start. We spend time with the community and all those who would be involved.  In the very first meetings with the community before concrete activities even get started, we address the issue of payment.  It’s not our project for the community and they are not working for us – it’s the community’s project.  We do negotiate with them to cover additional expenses that they may incur for participation in a workshop or event, for example, transport, food, etc.

What’s in it for me? Many NGOs have come around before, just giving hand outs, and people are used to seeing an NGO come in paternalistically to give them things.  They imagine that you have a lot of money and you’ll arrive to just start handing things out.  This is not how we want to work.  But people want to know – well, I’m not making any money from this, and I’m going above and beyond, so what do I personally get out of it? What’s in it for me? They even ask this directly, and that is normal. There’s a need to help people think beyond the immediate project. What value does this project add to people’s lives in the long term, to what they do on a daily basis?  If they are not thinking in the long-term, it may be hard for them to see value in the project. If during this discussion with them it’s clear that people don’t see any value in an initiative, then you should be aware that they are not really going to participate.  And that is also logical – if there’s really nothing in it for them, why should they do it? So you need to listen to people and be prepared to discuss and redesign and renegotiate the project so that they are really getting something of value for themselves and the community out of it.  If you come in with an idea from the outside and people don’t see value for themselves, and you go the easy route and pay people to participate in the project, you will see the whole thing fall apart and the efforts will have been for nothing, you will see no impact. So we take the time and discuss and co-design with the community to make it all work. That way it becomes a catalyst for long term positive changes.

Understanding local culture and how your government works. We work to involve local governments and ministries in this work as well as other kinds of decision makers. It’s important to understand how local culture works and what the hierarchies and protocols are in order to do this successfully. It’s critical to know what your government is like and how they work.  If you are not aware of this, it will create problems.  You need to know how to engage teachers, district officials, school directors.  We follow local protocols so that we can ensure good participation and involvement, especially when we need support from the government or ministries in order to move forward with something.  We involve people at these levels also because they are the duty bearers who have the ultimate responsibility here in our countries.  If you leave them out of the equation, you are really harming the initiative and its sustainability as well as losing out on an opportunity to make sustainable changes happen at that higher level.

Respecting community schedules. Communities are not sitting around, waiting for NGOs to show up so that they can participate in NGO activities and projects.  They have their own lives, their own other projects, their own work and their own goals that we need to harmonize with.  Projects that we are supporting are just one part of what community members are doing in their lives.  So we need to be flexible and let the community dictate the pace.  Sometimes partners, colleagues from other parts of the organization and outside donors do not understand this, which can cause conflicts and misunderstandings with the community.  In our case, for example, we are working with youth. They are in school.  We can’t interrupt their primary responsibility, which is getting their education, so we work with them during school holidays or after school.  Often parents want them to work during their school holidays. So again those meetings with parents, community leaders and so on become very important so that they see that their children are participating in a broader initiative and they see the value in it.

Gradual processes.  In this particular project, we are working with youth to have more of a voice.  This can be threatening to some adults in the community, and can go against local norms and culture, just like working with women to overcome gender discrimination can.  If youth are not used to voicing their opinions, they may be fearful of reprisals.  We don’t want to show up, give young people the tools and means to speak out, create conflict in the community, and leave.  This can be very counterproductive and even dangerous. This is where those meetings and building those relationships with different parts of the community again become very critical. We’ve adapted a methodology of intergenerational dialogue.  We sit with the elders, with the community leaders who hold elective positions, and share the project idea and what might come out of it, sit with women, sit with youth. This is like a focus group.  You don’t go in accusing people either. You ask them – what issues do you think youth are facing in the community? They will tell you, and when you’ve heard from everyone, you triangulate the information. Then you find a way to bring everyone together to find common points to start from.  The shift cannot come so strong and fast.  You need to take a slow process.

Listening to children and youth. The strongest point of reference will be what children and youth have talked about, because that is our focus. And for a child to tell you something, it’s taken a lot of work inside themselves to say something.  We had one case where a child decided to stand up and raise the issue of incest at an inter-generational dialogue meeting. A man stood up and said ‘you are lying, this doesn’t happen here’.  But there had been an on-going community process already, and there were other people in the community who were aware and were prepared to stand up and support the child.  In that case, a man stood behind the boy and said, ‘in our community we don’t talk about this, and it takes courage.  Let’s listen to the boy.’ This community process and work is really important to give confidence to the children to be able to speak.  If you are not yet at the point where children can stand up publicly and speak out, then ICTs can also be a good tool.  We’ve found that children’s radio is an excellent place to speak out anonymously about a sensitive community issue.  Children can call in to raise an issue and others can call in to confirm it if it’s happening in the community.  Theater, cartooning and other media area also good ways to raise issues.  Making a drama video on a sensitive topic and sharing it with the community can also be a way to raise an issue without directly accusing someone or implicating a child or youth for having raised it.

Expecting yourself to be held to task too. If there is a track record in the community with children speaking out but nothing happening or changing, then that will deter them from saying anything. So if you want to go down that road, of encouraging children and youth to speak out, you need to be prepared to take it through to the end, to support them. You have to be prepared to really take children and youth voices seriously, to follow things through to the end.  This is actually also true if they raise an area where your own organization has failed, that you yourself have not done something that you promised.  If we encourage them to use their voices, we have to expect that they will hold us accountable too.  We raise funds in the name of these children and communities, so we need to be accountable to them.  We need to be open to children, youth and the community also calling us out.  And have no doubt that they will. It’s happened before and will happen again. So we encourage them to challenge us as an organization, to be honest and to hold us to task.

Change and growth from within. As part of the whole community process, we do mapping, problem tree analysis, assets analysis with the youth and accompanying adults, and they learn much more about themselves. They think about where they are coming from and where they are going, and what local resources they have. This offers perpetuity, especially for the children and youth.  Because of knowing where you come from, you can know where you are going. Where you dream to be.  Using this kind of documentation and these tools actually helps a community to be open to absorbing new things, to be open to change and growth. But not external change and growth, change and growth coming from within the community.

Addressing gender discrimination. As part of the process of mapping and prioritizing issues, there is a lot of discussion.  Very often this brings up issues that are closely linked with gender discrimination.  We see this over and over again. Because we are working in a safe space and using different tools, the issues come up in a way that is not so threatening. Boys also are at a stage where they are more adaptable. They see their sisters and mothers being victims of discrimination and they are more open to hearing out their female peers.  So, we are able then to build a shared agenda that is favorable to girls, and which both boys and girls are then acting on and working to address.  Issues like child marriage, early pregnancy, girls’ schooling come up, but there is a way to look at them and do something.  We also open opportunities for youth leadership roles within the project, and we’ve seen girls start to fight to have a space there, whereas before they would not have thought that they could play an executive role.

Opening space for youth. We work to build new skills in youth to manage new technology, new media, and to do research in their communities.  Through this, youth claim a space that they didn’t have before and can influence certain things, advocate on certain issues they feel are important to them. You see them start taking ownership in communities and in leadership, they want to pick up new things for this role.  We used to invite youth to community meetings. We would start with 20 youth, then it would go down to 10, to 4, to 3 to none. They got bored with it because they didn’t see any relation to themselves. But with this integration of technology and arts, youth have a high interest. It’s really bringing in their opinions, their thoughts and ideas to join their voices with their parents. Now they use arts and media to promote communication, dialogue on their issues and look for ways to resolve them. Before they were totally missing. We tried to come in with programs for youth but they never worked before. With this new way of working, they have become more responsible because they  are not waiting for adults to come in with something and invite them in to ‘help’. Now they are designing strategies and solutions themselves and bringing these to the table.  It’s less easy for politicians and parties to manipulate them and incite them to violence.  Arts and media are effective in this way to share ideas, issues and to use in generating dialogue and solutions in their communities.

ICTs providing reach, motivation and skills. In addition to using ICTs to generate interest in young people and for them to take actions in their communities, we also use ICTs as a cost-efficient way of actually advocating at different levels. You can use video at the local level but also at the national, regional and global level. That is cost effective and has a real impact. You can use videos in invited spaces, for example, where governments, schools, other communities, or our organization itself invite children’s and youth’s voices in.  But we also support youth to use these tools to claim spaces, to fight for space and to get their voices heard there.  We give youth the tools, and you see their brains rewiring. They learn better hand-eye coordination by using a mouse and a computer, and you see then that in class, they can copy from the board without looking at their paper. They learn organizational skills by creating folders and sub folders. They learn structure from filming a video and making a time line while editing it.  They learn to speak with adults and decision makers from talking on the radio, using a recorder or a camera.  They become more motivated to complete school.  All this makes them more effective leaders and advocates for themselves and their agenda.  They also know that they’ve learnt a skill that puts them at the top of the pile in their community for jobs now. They are plugged into something that would never have existed for them before.

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As part of our ongoing work around using ICTs (information and communication technology) in our programs and general operations, 10 staff in Plan Uganda did a 2-day workshop in March, 2010.  The workshop was based on a distance learning pack that my colleague Mika Valitalo (Plan Finland), Hannah Beardon (Mobiles for Development report) and I put together. It includes some narrated slide shows, short videos, and a series of questions and exercises to guide discussion around strategically incorporating ICTs into our work where and when it is appropriate and feasible.  So far the workshops have been conducted in 6 countries with 2 still to come.

Anthony Makumbi, from our Regional Office for Eastern and Southern Africa, facilitated this Uganda workshop (and credit for the information below goes to him). Anthony is the Regional Community ICT Advisor and has a long experience working on ICTs and ICT4D in the region.  He’s also just written up a pretty impressive draft document which will guide Plan’s ICT strategies in Eastern and Southern Africa.

“We initially thought that when you talked about ICT you were referring to the computer guys, but our minds have now been opened further on the topic. We’ve learned that ‘ICT’ does not equal ‘computers’. Instead, the term ICT encompasses any technology tool that enables information flow and communication.”  (participant)

This always seems to come up in these trainings – people realize that thinking about and using ICTs is not something that is limited to technicians, geeks, network specialists, programmers, the IT Department, etc.  Demystifying this term is so important in order to get people interested and to open up to thinking about how ICTs can support their every day work.

Staff also said that they needed more exposure to new ICTs and innovations. “People need to be informed of something in order to be able to seek further information about it.  If we know about available technologies and what they can offer, we will further explore them.”

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Below is a summary of the Uganda team’s general reflections from the workshop:

Multi stakeholder approaches are necessary to promote innovation and a favorable climate for integration of ICTs.  It is vital to work with governments as the main regulators, the private sector to effectively explore the use of technology, and civil society to ensure that the services are accessible to the population. (For example, the Seacom cable was meant to reduce the Internet costs yet there has not been a notable reduction in costs for the general population – what is the role of civil society in making sure this happens?)

Participatory community assessment around trusted information sources. Before embarking on a community ICT initiative, it’s critical to do a participatory assessment of what the trusted information sources are at the community level. This is important especially if you plan on building awareness on particular issues within a community and would like this information to reach as many people as possible.  A participatory assessment can help gain a better understanding of how people communicate and what communication tools  are most effective to reach a particular goal.

Access for women and girls. Cultural practices, the availability or cost of acquiring a tool, and access to that tool or source of information need to be taken into consideration.  Women in many areas are excluded from accessing ICT tools because they do not handle money. A key focus in ICT programs in Uganda should be to strengthen access to information sources, including programs that mitigate women’s and girls’ barriers to use and access. Another tactic might be programs that promote access to basic information for women so that they are also informed and able to utilize information for their own purposes: eg., nutritional information for their children, the need for girls to go to school or avoid early marriages; programs that share information from other sources that influence women’s decisions.

Building on what is available.  Organizations should look at what is around them and leverage available opportunities. In Plan Uganda’s case, for example, this could mean looking at mobile money transfer services linked to Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA); closed user group (CUG) services that define private networks and allow calls made within the private network at large discounts; and services such as the Pakalast promotion on Warid Telecom, which gives users access to each other on the same network for 24hrs for about 80 cents. Awareness should also be built about tools that can provide radio signals apart from a radio, such as a phone with radio access.

Literacy levels and local language. In Uganda, literacy levels are low.  Many people do not manage English. Technologies need to be made available in local languages. Fast track learning could also be considered, such as the development of an integrated education program to address technology and literacy. A close look at mobiles phones — which have taken off at their own pace with the existing literacy levels – could help us to think about how other technologies might fare similarly well.

Electricity.  Solar power should be built into all of our initiatives.

Mobile tools. Mobile data collection could be used instead of paper systems that are currently in place and very laborious. Services like use of SMS for accessing national exam results could serve as a stimulus to further expose communities on what these technologies can do for them.  SMS services could also be used to acquire basic quantitative data in, for example, VSLAs to collect information about group portfolios, or gender ratios or youth participation by age. This can then be vital for designing further programming.

GPS. This could be a useful tool in a program like Community Lead Total Sanitation (CLTS). Latrine coverage could be mapped at the start of a CLTS project in a community and after the project has been implemented over time. This could be linked to health programs that could track a reduction in diarrhea cases in the community, and then this information could be linked to home improvement campaigns as evidence based approach.

ICTs in Governance. ICTs can give communities a platform to provide feedback on services rendered and also know of services available to them.

New ICTs or ICT applications that staff found most interesting:  SMS and mobile data gathering, platforms such as Village Diary for managing confidential legal services and potentially HIV/AIDs program information, blogging to open up channels for discussion on issues and bringing together social movements and organizations working on similar issues, wikis for writing reports, podcasting which could be used in capacity building interventions for multiple groups.

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Plan Uganda staff felt that this type of training on ICTs should be expanded to more people in the organization, and to partner organizations, to build more buy in. They recognized the importance of organizational commitment to moving forward in this area, and asked for continuous training on new ICT tools and innovations.  Ongoing evaluation was suggested to measure the value added by ICTs to program activities, and a follow-up workshop was requested to check progress on the ideas that were generated.

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