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Posts Tagged ‘NGO’

Plan just released a new report called ICT Enabled Development: Using ICT strategically to support Plan’s work. The report is part of an on-going process by Plan Finland (kudos to Mika Valitalo for leading the process) in collaboration with Plan USA to support Plan’s country offices in Africa to use ICTs strategically and effectively in their development work. It was written by Hannah Beardon and builds on the Mobiles for Development Guide that Plan Finland produced (also written by Hannah) in 2009.

The idea for the report came out of our work with staff and communities, and the sense that we needed to better understand and document the ICT4D context in the different countries where we are working. Country offices wanted to strengthen their capacities to strategically incorporate ICTs into their work and to ensure that any fund-raising efforts for ICTs were stemming from real needs and interest from the ground. Plan offices were also in the process of updating their long-term strategic plans and wanted to think through how and where they could incorporate ICTs in their work internally and with communities.

The process for creating the report included 2-day workshops with staff in 5 countries, using a methodology that Mika, Hannah and I put together. We created a set of ICT training materials and discussion questions and used a ‘distance-learning’ process, working with a point person in each office who planned and carried out the workshop. Mika and I supported via Skype and email.

Hannah researched existing reports and initiatives by participating offices to find evidence and examples of ICT use. She also held phone or skype conversations with key staff at the country and regional levels around their ICT use, needs and challenges, and pulled together information on the national ICT context for each country.

The first section of the report explains the concept of ‘ICT enabled development’ and why it is important for Plan and other development organizations to take on board. “With so many ICT tools and applications now available, the job of a development organization is no longer to compensate for lack of access but to find innovative and effective ways of putting the tools to development ends. This means not only developing separate projects to install ICTs in under-served communities, but looking at key development challenges and needs with an ICT eye, asking ‘how could ICTs help to overcome this problem’?

Drawing on the research, conversations, workshop input and feedback from staff, and documented experience using ICTs in Plan’s work, Hannah created a checklist with 10 key areas to think about when planning ICT-enabled development efforts.

  1. Context Analysis: what is happening with ICT (for development) in the country or region?
  2. Defining the need: what problems can ICT help overcome? what opportunities can it create?
  3. Choosing a strategy: what kind of ICT4D is needed? direct? internal? strategic?
  4. Undertaking a participatory communications assessment: who will benefit from this use of ICT and how?
  5. Choosing the technology: what ICTs/applications are available to meet this need or goal?
  6. Adjusting the content: can people understand and use the information provided for and by the ICTs?
  7. Building and using capacity: what kind of support will people need to use and benefit from the ICT, and to innovate around it?
  8. Monitoring progress: how do you know if the ICT is helping meet the development goal or need?
  9. Keeping it going: how can you manage risks and keep up with changes?
  10. Learning from each other: what has been done before, and what have you learned that others could use?

The checklist helps to ensure that ICT use is linked to real development needs and priorities and appropriate for those who are participating in an initiative or a project. The report elaborates on the 10 key areas with detailed observations, learning and examples to illustrate them and to help orient others who are working on similar initiatives. It places the checklist into a 4-stage process for ICT integration.

  1. Understanding the context for ICT work: includes external context and internal experience and capacity
  2. Finding a match between priorities and possibilities: rooting the system in local needs and priorities and finding good uses for tools and applications
  3. Planning and implementing concrete initiatives: carrying out participatory assessments, linking to other development processes and addressing technical issues and concerns
  4. Building a culture of systematic, sustained and strategic use of ICTs: linking ICTs with program work, transforming the role of ‘the ICT guy’, and building expertise on the cultural and social aspects of ICT use

Additional material and case studies, ICT country briefings, and an overview of Plan’s current work with ICT4D in Africa are offered at the end of the report.

The report includes input from Plan staff in Ghana, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal and Uganda who participated in the ICT4D workshops. It also draws heavily on some of the work that Mika has been doing in Finland and Kenya, and work that I’ve been involved in and have written about in Mali, Cameroon, Mozambique, Ghana, Benin and Kenya involving staff, community members and community youth. You can contact Mika to get the workshop methodology in French or English or to comment on the report (ict4d [at] plan [dot] fi).

There’s so much rich material in the report that I almost want to summarize the whole thing here on my blog, section by section, so that people will take the time to read it…  I think this is a really important and useful piece of work and we’re very excited that it’s now available! Download it here.

Related posts on Wait… What?

ICT4D in Uganda: ICT does not equal computers

Demystifying Internet (Ghana)

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw: Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshops

A positively brilliant ICT4D workshop in Kwale, Kenya

7 or more questions to ask before adding ICTs (Benin)

A catalyst for positive change (Cameroon)

Salim’s ICT advice part 1: consider both process and passion (Kenya)

Salim’s ICT advice part 2: innovate but keep it real (Kenya)

Meeting in the middle

I and C, then T (US)

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Continuing on with the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) related posts…. I’ll be on a panel on Sept 21st talking about how ICTs can contribute to the MDGs. My perspective is less from a top down, big business, giant project point of view. In my work, I look at ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) as tools that children and young people can use to create and access information and to advance their own agendas locally and beyond, and ICTs as tools that organizations (big and small, local or not) can incorporate into their work to improve their efforts to attain development goals (such as the MDGs).

ICTs can be helpful tools for enhancing accountability, transparency, citizen engagement, public debate, participation and local ownership of the development process — all of which help with achievement of the MDGs. (See my post on MDGs through a child rights lens for more reasons why). ICTs and social media can also help organizations do more efficient, effective, engaging and high quality work.

ICTs are not silver bullets or magical elements, however; and they will not solve anything on their own. They need to be well-integrated into programs, and well-contextualized.

One framework I especially like to use for thinking about how organizations can integrate ICTs into their work comes from Hannah Beardon. Hannah suggests that ICTs can be integrated directly, strategically and indirectly:

Directly (Providing Access to ICTs): Mobiles and other ICTs have an immediate and striking impact at the family and community level, connecting people for personal, business and community reasons. Mobile devices save individuals time and money and are indispensable in emergencies and for connecting people to the larger world, such as for remittances and commodity pricing. Mobiles and ICTs can help people access information, improve their education, maintain social networks, participate in governance and community, and generate income.

Providing equipment directly is one way to think about ICTs in development programs. This includes ICT tools such as computers, mobile phones, video cameras, digital cameras, radio equipment, electricity, and Internet access. Often direct ICT support is considered for education programs and efforts focused primarily on ICT training or media projects. Computer centers and classrooms are an example, as is supplying mobile phones to project participants or GPS units for mapping projects or equipment for health programs. If this equipment and the information it collects are managed at the community or local organization level, it can enable people to assess and respond to local development needs in a powerful way.

The availability of ICTs is obviously a pre-cursor to using them in different programs and projects. However I’m not much in favor of development organizations coming in and giving away mobile phones (unless it’s some type of extreme emergency or crisis, I suppose). I’m also wary of external NGOs setting up computer centers or giving large equipment donations because of sustainability and capacity concerns. Care needs to be taken that a non-profit organization is not assuming the role that local businesses or government institutions should be playing. Working in good partnerships with local and national government institutions and local businesses and keeping clear agreements on the roles of all actors, including the community, can help to reduce these risks and make programs more sustainable. Programs that directly provide equipment also need to think carefully about what other elements are required for success (purpose of the equipment, training to use it, ongoing maintenance and repair, electricity/power, a place to keep the equipment safe, local involvement in defining the type of equipment, etc). (See 10 Worst Practices in ICTs in Education).

In thinking about providing direct access to ICTs, one place for NGOs to focus energies is keeping an eye on government ICT policies and plans and strengthening civil society to pressure government to ensure that ICTs (including Internet) are accessible to the population now that more and more information is shared via ICTs. Article 17 in the Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines children’s right to information, including access to information and material from a diversity of national and international sources, especially those aimed at the promotion of a child’s social, spiritual and moral well-being and physical and mental health. States Parties are obliged to (a) Encourage the mass media to disseminate information and material of social and cultural benefit to the child and in accordance with the spirit of article 29; (b) Encourage international cooperation in the production, exchange and dissemination of such information and material from a diversity of cultural, national and international sources; (c) Encourage the production and dissemination of children’s books; (d) Encourage the mass media to have particular regard to the linguistic needs of the child who belongs to a minority group or who is indigenous; (e) Encourage the development of appropriate guidelines for the protection of the child from information and material injurious to his or her well-being, bearing in mind the provisions of articles 13 and 18. The 2005 World Summit on the Information Society’s Tunis Agenda also provides a useful platform for thinking about advocacy around rights to information and ICTs.

Making a film on birth registration, Cameroon

Strategically (Using ICTs as tools to support development processes): Beyond directly providing ICTs, new technologies can be used in a myriad of ways to support the broader development process. Starting from larger program goals, defining the roles that information and communication play, looking closely at the local context, and then researching existing tools that could be supportive is a good way to start when planning concrete initiatives. (Forthcoming is a second publication by Hannah outlining a good process for local contextualizing and ICT integration into specific programs). If there are no existing tools, a case can be made for developing or building onto a tool or an application.

Mobile phones, as tools for effective and timely dissemination of information, have real potential to strengthen the design and delivery of programs, for example in health, education, household economic security, disaster risk reduction and response, emergency and crisis management, HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment, child protection, youth-led advocacy, and water and sanitation. ICTs should be an integral part of local, country-level and broader strategic planning processes and they should be incorporated, where appropriate and relevant, into programs where they can add value, keeping a close eye during monitoring and evaluation on whether their purported benefits are real.

On-going capacity building and exchange at various levels is critical to help program staff become aware of advances in the field of ICTs and to help ICT advisors better understand programs, staff needs and community realities. Conversations across sector and silo boundaries are also critical to ensure that ICT integration is successful. ‘Bridge figures’ are helpful — those persons with good knowledge of both programs and ICTs — to help these processes along. In the absence of someone to serve as a bridge figure, well-structured teams with expertise in both areas should work closely together to take advantage of their specific expertise and to learn from one another.  ICT tools should be selected based on local needs and contexts as well as program priorities, starting with information and communication needs, rather than starting with new ‘breakthrough’ technologies. (Though other sectors often start with the cool technology and see if/how it can be useful). During strategic planning processes, program staff should be analyzing program information and communication needs and working with ICT staff to incorporate technology that may add value and help reach program goals in a higher quality and more effective way. Again, ‘bridge figures’ can be helpful in that process. Monitoring and evaluation are important along the way to check whether adding ICTs is actually helping. Sometimes things work perfectly fine without new ICTs.

Indirectly (Using ICTs to improve efficiency and communication within the organization): The wealth of knowledge and information that a development organization generates and uses needs to be documented, shared and communicated effectively in order to improve impact. Advances in knowledge management and on-line collaboration, including blogs, wikis and other social media tools and feedback mechanisms can bring immediate access to information and real-time discussion. Lower cost technology, notably in the areas of digital mapping, GPS, mobile mapping, mobile internet can help staff to carry out their daily work and improve information sharing and decision-making across departments and to engage and inform the public. Engagement with donors can also be heightened through ICT tools and social media, always taking into consideration the additional burden 24/7 demands can add to staff’s workload, and the child protection and other risks posed by more direct access to communities.

ICTs and social media can help make aid and development organizations more participatory, more agile, and able to pull in information from variety of sources and process it faster. This in turn can help pull people out of their silos and force them to consider new ideas and ways of working and thinking about challenges. Mobiles especially are helpful for better communication with community members and local organizations. Forward thinking organizations should be taking advantage of these new tools to gather direct feedback from those that they are supporting, for better dialog to improve their work, and for devolving helpful information to community members. Mobile data collection, for example, in addition to being a strategic tool for program implementation, can also be a way of improving the quality of data collection and increasing ownership by community members of their own data which support them to take back management of their own development processes from external agents. Mobiles are also a great tool for gathering data quickly from a broad subset of the population; data which can shape rapid responses and emergency interventions.

Twitter and blogging and other web-based services can serve as a springboard for deeper discussions and coordination among different development actors, government agents, institutions and the private sector. Social media is a way to share and discuss lessons learned and challenges faced, and to diffuse information about new ICTs and how they are being used by different agencies and individuals. Global partnerships can easily be initiated, developed and nurtured on-line. Organizations can provide on-line training opportunities to staff and save time and money by using new technologies such as forums, blogs for sharing and reporting, Skype and chat tools, and social networking. These same tools can be used to improve relationships with donors and with partners and staff working in disperse offices. However, in order for any of the above to happen, command and control practices that are common in large institutions and organizations need to be abolished so the tools can be most useful.  Here is an excellent post on use of social media tools in humanitarian work.

3-fold path

Using those three categories to think about ICT integration in an organization’s work can help clarify and strategize. Some initiatives may include all three categories and some may be more focused on one particular category.

In a follow-up post, I’ll share some examples of tools that I find interesting and helpful for organizations working at the grassroots level to achieve broader programmatic goals and to improve local community participation and ownership of the development process.

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MDG related posts on Wait… What?

MDGs through a child rights lens

5 ways ICTs can support the MDGs

ICT related posts on Wait… What?

11 concerns about ICTs and ‘social media for social good’

I and C, then T

Innovate but keep it real

ICT4D in Uganda — ‘ICT’ does not equal ‘computers’

Mind the gap

7 (or more) questions to ask before adding ICTs

It’s all part of the ICT Jigsaw: ICT workshop in Mozambique

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In early 2005, following the Tsunami, I collaborated with a cross-section of people at the organization where I work to put together a summary of lessons learned and some short guidelines for working with children and communities in emergencies.

All of us had been directly responsible for supporting and/or coordinating disaster response with communities, staff, local and national governments, international and national NGOs, children, youth, schools and teachers, or some combination of the above, in the countries where we lived and worked.  We discussed preparedness as well as relief and recovery phases. We talked about how child focused community development organizations, like the one where we worked, should look at children’s survival, development, participation and protection in a disaster situation and we created some internal guidelines.

Some of the most important things that stayed with me from the weeks we spent talking with each other, with peer organizations, and with our colleagues who were dealing with the 2004 Tsunami are related to the importance of child participation and protection during emergencies.  These recommendations can be applied now to the crisis in Haiti.

  • Don’t assume children or their families can’t do anything for themselves. Local coping mechanisms are often overlooked and underestimated by central governments or aid organizations, creating unnecessary dependency.  Participating and taking control of their situation can actually help people return to normal sooner. I clearly remember an example of an IDP camp where all the services (food, water) were at first centrally coordinated by the municipal government.  A manager from our organization was able to convince the government to engage camp ‘residents’ and organize children and youth into smaller groups who handled particular responsibilities. Suddenly the trash in the camp was picked up and time spent in the food line went from 2 hours to 20 minutes, tempers lowered and people relaxed a bit and got on with things.  The Children and Participation: Research, Monitoring and Evaluation with Children and Young People by Save the Children is a general guide that can help staff think through and orient participation of children and young people in emergencies.  Child-Oriented Participatory Risk Assessment and Planning (COPRAP): A Toolkit developed by the Center for Disaster Preparedness (CDP) in the Philippines is another excellent resource. Both were adapted and used by Plan during the conflict in Timor Leste, for example.
  • Child protection is critical during an emergency and after. During a disaster the typical social patterns and groupings that protect children may be challenged or broken. Children can be further harmed, abused and exploited by those who take advantage of the chaos.  Unaccompanied children can be preyed on if mechanisms are not established quickly.  Personal information about children is often shared or published widely in the interest of helping find parents or relatives or find missing persons, yet it can also help unscrupulous people to identify unaccompanied children and prey on them, especially now when published on the internet.  Birth registration and restoration of lost identity and other civil registration documents are critical to halt trafficking, as is close coordination among organizations, governments, communities and local agencies/staff.  Community members and the affected population can play a strong role in protecting their children, as can older children themselves.  The Interagency Guiding Principles on Unaccompanied and Separated Children, put together by the International Committee of the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, Save the Children UK, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and World Vision, gives an excellent overview of protection.  Further resources are available at Better Care Network’s website which has materials on separated children in emergencies, how to prevent separation through good relief and response efforts, registration, documentation and tracing, emergency care arrangements, verification and family reunification.
  • Unaccompanied children should not be given up for foreign adoption during the emergency phase. Experience in many past emergencies and conflicts has shown that this is just not the way to go.  In the emergency phase there is no way to ascertain which children are orphans with no other family at all, versus children who might be orphaned but have family somewhere who could take them in.  Taking children out of the country to feed them without a long-term, sustainable plan for them can end up being more complex than finding a way to feed and care for them in country.  Supporting removal of children from their own country during a time of upheaval can also engender a negative reaction among the affected population, who may come to see every external face that comes into the community or camp as someone coming to steal their children.  Interim and emergency care should be consistent with the long-term goal of family reunification.  More background on this can be found at the International Foster Care Association’s website.
  • Participation and protection go hand in hand. The greater the amount of knowledge and ownership that children, youth and their families and communities have, the safer they will be and the sooner they will recover. When the affected people have more input in the relief, recovery and reconstruction, efforts are more successful.  This means linking and coordinating with existing community organizations and structures, local government mechanisms, local non-governmental organizations.  Though it may appear that everything is wiped out in a major disaster, leaders will emerge and regroup.  Plan’s publication “After the Cameras have Gone:  Children in Disasters” offers some examples and insights on protection and participation in disaster situations.
  • Report ethically. The media will undoubtedly look for the ‘best’ story in the interest of raising the most funds possible for the emergency.  In media-speak, unfortunately, that often means the hardest hitting story, the most emotional story, and some journalists/media folks will go extremely far to get it.  However, journalists and agencies bringing journalists to affected communities should obviously not further harm children or take advantage of affected persons in their drive to get the best story.  Journalists should not ask children to relive traumatic experiences or to make them tell stories that upset them just to get a shot of a child crying.  The golden rule applies – how would you like it if that were you or your child?  Children or other community members may be too polite or unsure of whether they can say ‘no’ to a journalist, especially if that journalist is foreign or comes with an aid agency or entity that is linked with emergency aid.  Those working regularly with children and their families should ensure them that they can refuse to talk, they can halt an interview, or not have their picture taken. Local staff managing media visits should feel empowered to intervene on behalf of children in these cases. UNICEF’s “Child Rights and the Media” Guidelines for Journalists and Media Professionals, published by the International Federation of Journalists, gives a background and guide for ethical reporting on children in general.  These guidelines include things like striving for sensitivity when reporting on issues involving children and avoiding use of stereotypes and sensational presentation to promote journalistic material involving children, and they should apply in emergency situations as well.

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My main experience with disasters comes from working at an international development organization in El Salvador and happening to be the only senior manager who wasn’t on annual vacation when a huge earthquake struck almost exactly 9 years ago, on January 13, 2001. The rush to act was immediate, and it was a lot of learning by doing.  I got handed the responsibility by fate I suppose and didn’t do such a bad job of it, if I do say so.  At that time we were pretty unprepared; something that has certainly changed since then in the organization where I work.  We now have country level disaster plans at hand and support a lot of disaster risk reduction and preparedness work with local communities and governments.

One of the main challenges for us in responding to the Salvadoran earthquakes in 2001 was information:  lack of information, wrong information, too much information to sort through, outdated information, etc.  We spent way too much time in staff meetings and meetings with other organizations/government sharing what we had done and what we were planning to do, only to find out that everything had changed while we were sitting there, and some decisions were no longer valid.  There was no effective way to manage all the information in the constantly moving and changing circumstances.

And in 2010…?

I’m sure things have changed quite a lot in disaster work since 2001, and since 2005 when I spent about 6 weeks in India and Thailand after the Tsunami, but I would bet that information management will still be a major challenge during the relief and recovery efforts in Haiti following the January 12, 2010 earthquake, especially given the scale of the crisis and the number of agencies who are already working there or are just now arriving to set up shop.

Today’s technology should allow us a better way to manage this information.  I hope that organizations working on the ground in Haiti will take advantage of the shared and open digital information systems available to them that can be updated in various ways by various people in various locations.  The convergence of information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as digital mapping, crowd sourcing and crowd feeding of information, GPS, mobile phones and SMS,  geo-visualization for rapid decision making and trend spotting will be put to a massive test as the disaster response in Haiti unfolds.

In comes Ushahidi

The place where these ICT tools are converging right now into one ready to use platform is at www.haiti.ushahidi.com.  (I confess that I’m unaware of other options that offer the same or similar crisis management capacity – feel free to post other examples in the comments section). [update: for regularly updated detailed info on Ushahidi and other digital tools being used in the Haiti Crisis, visit the Ushahidi Situation Room].

According to the Ushahidi blog, work on the Haiti crisis map began about 2 hours after the massive quake struck, thanks to a global effort of people linked to Ushahidi, Frontline SMS/Frontline SMS: Medic, UN OCHA Colombia, the International Network of Crisis Mappers, and the US State Department (and probably others behind the scenes that haven’t been mentioned yet).  The system is now operational.  The in-country short code 4636 went live on January 16th.

What is Ushahidi and how does it work?

Ushahidi could be described as a mapping tool and also as a platform I suppose.  Each Ushahidi ‘instance’ is created based on the information needs of whoever is setting up the instance, and a map of a particular geographical area.  Via email, SMS, Twitter, or by filling in an on-line form, anyone can send in information to populate the map with information.  This information falls into specific topic areas that have been decided beforehand by whoever is setting up the site. (Ushahidi instances have been used to track drug stock outs, to monitor elections and human rights abuses, and in crisis situations, for example.)  In the case of Haiti, it’s deaths, emergencies, threats, responses, missing persons, etc.

The “incident reports” that people send in are uploaded onto the map (using geo-location tags) to give a visual representation of what is happening and where.  They are labeled as “verified” or “unverified”.  As data is triaged, the unverified reports are eventually verified.  Different layers of information can be viewed, and you can see an overview or zoom in for more detail on the map.  [Update:  These reports are being channeled now into Sahana’s system (read about it here) system, developed in Sri Lanka for the Asian Tsunami in 2004.]

To really understand how this works, the best thing is to just visit the site.

Crowdsourcing and Crowdfeeding

Two of the basic concepts behind Ushahidi are “crowd sourcing” and “crowd feeding”. Crowd sourcing means information is obtained from the “crowd”.  Crowd feeding means that the collected information is consolidated and fed back to that same “crowd” so that they are better able to make decisions.  People standing right there on the ground usually know what is happening right there on the ground better than people visiting periodically from centralized headquarters, and via Ushahidi, that information is pulled in from the sources on the ground in almost real-time.  Giving consolidated information back and/or responding to those who provided it completes the circle.

Trust the Public

With a large enough amount of information input, any bogus incident reports can be identified.  I won’t go into all the discussions around the validity of crowd-sourced information as it’s been a large debate, but seems to play out that yes, you can trust the information to the degree necessary to help make quick decisions in times of crisis or emergency — and this information is better than no information or information that comes too late.

In fact, in September, I participated in a meeting about geo-visualization at Google’s offices in Washington, DC (see my before lunch and after lunch posts) and heard presentations by both the American Red Cross (ARC) and the US Federal Environmental Management Association (FEMA). Both organizations talked about the need to trust citizens to report on what is happening right in front of them, and that these reports are every bit as reliable as reports by experts, and a whole lot quicker because people have mobile phones now.  Pulling in information from citizens and mapping out the situation visually can be a huge resource for those making decisions about response.

What’s needed now

What is needed now for Ushahidi in Haiti to work to its fullest potential is for people to share information about what is happening where they are.  The general public in Haiti can text a message into 4636 to submit a report giving their location and telling about their situation: missing persons, need for medical attention, supplies needed, help that has already arrived, changing priorities, etc. [Internationally use 44-76-280-2524, or report using the web form at the Ushahidi Haiti site].

Emergency Aid agencies too

Information sharing is not only something for the public.  In addition to input from the local population, it would be great if local organizations and international agencies would use Ushahidi to share information on what they are seeing as they work in and pass through different communities.  By being open and sharing this kind of information, maybe overall coordination can improve and precious time and resources won’t be wasted because of information challenges.  [Update:  Organizations on the ground can register at Sahana, and receive situation reports so that they can provide assistance.]

One aid agency can’t canvas the whole country alone, and Ushahidi offers a way to get real information from real people on the ground in near real-time. I think it would have much been easier in El Salvador in 2001 if we had the ICTs then that we have now.  I hope people and organizations take the best advantage of them in 2010, now that they are available.


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Before I went to El Salvador in 1991 (read why in my earlier post here), I had never traveled outside the US. I had read lots of articles about the country’s Civil War and intense poverty in the LA Weekly, a lefty newspaper in Los Angeles where I went to school.  I imagined El Salvador as a somber, high contrast black and white photo, with some thick red paint dripping down it to represent the bloodshed and suffering of a noble people being crushed by US Imperialism.  (yeah, pretty dramatic)

To my surprise, El Salvador was more of a bright, animated 3-D movie with endless layers of depth and detail.  The poor, simple, suffering, downtrodden people I had imagined I would live among in San Salvador were in reality intelligent, active, politically savvy individuals who listened to a lot of loud cumbia music (and some Rock en Espanol), privately followed politics with a passion, piled into a pickup truck on Sundays for soccer games, and bustled around with intensity.  There were meals to make and bills to pay in spite of the sporadic skirmishes outside of the capital, the possibility of being outed as an opposition supporter or recruited forcibly into the military, and the lack of free speech in the company of certain individuals and in the media.

Kids went to school, played marbles, laughed and flew kites.  Although lack of money was an obvious issue and there were scary soldiers with machine guns on every street corner downtown, people lived their daily lives pretty much like people do everywhere, dealing with the good, the bad, and quite a lot of the petty.  There were no noble sufferers.  There were no simple portraits.  Life was not a black and white photo.  Rather there were people living within intricate layers of economic, political, family and personal relationships, adapting skillfully to an ugly cold war reality.

Like everywhere, each individual was complex, as was every set of relationships.  The man who beat his wife would step aside with a gracious smile to allow you to pass on a narrow sidewalk. The woman who offered to help you carry your basket from the market might also be the one burying effigies and lighting candles to bring down business at the local tienda out of envy.  The guy who handed out cash to the kids to buy a soda was likely also the one who was informing the government of the names of people who sided with the opposition.  And (as I found out on this trip) the midwife’s daughter, who accompanied your children’s births along with her mother, might one day go to prison for being part of her husband’s organized crime group. These situations were all open secrets to everyone in the Barrio.

The “80% of people living in poverty” statistic (or whatever the number was at that time) didn’t mean a lot once you dug into it. Those newspaper photos of the impoverished, suffering people were a very thin reading of reality.  Behind them there were layers and layers of economic hierarchies and social depth.

About 3 years after I moved to El Salvador I started my first NGO job. One of my responsibilities was accompanying delegations to see different community projects. In many cases, as soon as we’d arrive to the communities, people would approach me and unleash the litany of their troubles and poverty, sometimes wringing their hands or their hat, asking for help, painting themselves as victims because I was white, had arrived in a 4×4 with an NGO logo on the side and a group of foreigners, and could translate their pleas for help.

I must have seemed pretty heartless, but it was hard to see people prostrating themselves when they lived in similar conditions to the ones my neighbors and I did in the Barrio, and no one in the Barrio saw me as someone who would fix things for them.

It probably seemed to the foreign visitors that a terrible thing had happened to me.  I had become “immune to the suffering”.  But what I think was really the case is that I didn’t feel sorry for people. I had no illusions that I could solve anyone’s problems and I felt really uncomfortable in this unfamiliar hierarchy.

My biggest work-related take-away from my time in El Salvador is an awareness of the hidden community dynamics and of what I represent when I visit different communities wherever my work takes me.  I’m acutely aware that there’s a lot happening under the surface that I know nothing about, and can’t know about, especially if I don’t speak the language or live in the community for a really long time or develop close and familiar relationships with several people so I can hear different viewpoints. (Perhaps that’s the anthropologist in me).

I’m hyper sensitive that I need to stay in the background. Community members, community organizations and local staff need to take the lead.  And when I see that there is a seat for me at that table up in front of the community assembly, I die a little inside.  When possible, I grab my camera as an excuse for not sitting there and roam around taking photos (of the non-black-and-white-with-dripping-red-blood variety).

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The FLAP Bag is a project that was initiated at PopTech, together with Portable Light and Timbuk2 (join the discussion on FLAP bags here)  The FLAP is a messenger bag, designed by Timbuk2, which incorporates a removable flexible solar panel made by Portable Light.  The solar panel can be left on the bag and charged on the go (i.e. while you walk around in the sun) or removed and laid out flat to absorb the sun.  Connected to the solar panel is a battery that feeds into a small light, useful for walking/riding a bike at night, and a mobile phone charger. Photo: FLAP bag.

For use at home when there is no power, the light can be hung up or set up to reflect off the silvery back side of the solar panel for increased reach of its brightness.  A day of charging gives 10 hours of light.  Phones can be plugged into the USB port on the battery.  The phone charger (I learned) is direct charge – i.e., it charges through the battery only while in the sun, not from the battery after sundown. Photo:  FLAP bag with reflective side showing.

A few weeks ago I wrote about taking the FLAP bag to Mozambique to see what people thought of it.

While there I also got a few reactions on video (3 mins long).


Note:  I didn’t embed the video here because you can’t watch it with subtitles if it’s embedded, so you’ll have to check it out via this link.  To turn on the captions/subtitles, click on the lower right hand triangle of the video player.  That will show you a “cc” box. Click on the “cc” box to turn it red, and that will turn on captions/subtitles.  To the left of the “cc” is another little triangle. Hover over it, and you’ll see the language options.  (And for something really cool – then check out how you can translate the captions! but that’s another topic…)

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After my month in Mozambique with the bag, and based on some conversations sparked by my last blog post, my thoughts are:

How the FLAP worked for me

I charged the panels up a few times in Mozambique and at first had trouble getting the light to turn on. I emailed Portable Light and they explained that you need to keep the button pressed down for a bit for the light to come on.  Bingo, it worked fine then.  We had a week of steady rain the 3rd week I was in Mozambique and the power was out in my room at the hotel.  I was able to use the light for 4 consecutive evenings for a couple of hours and the battery held the power even though I wasn’t recharging the panel during the day.  For some reason I wasn’t able to get my i-phone to charge, so need to figure out what’s going on there.  I didn’t realize at first that phone charging has to be done via direct sunlight, not stored power, so maybe that is the problem. Will keep trying.

Purpose.

It’s a great idea and meets real needs:  light and mobile phone charging. People love the idea. It turns heads and the bag is very nice.  Everyone wants one, as you could see from the video. I liked the poetic quote that the FLAP gives you power for the fundamentals: “a telephone to communicate and a lamp to illuminate.”

Openness to testing.

I love that the FLAP folks are open to feedback and adjustments to the idea to develop something that’s localized and works for different populations/situations.

USB port.

Most people in the rural communities where I tend to travel don’t own or have access to computers and their phones come with wall plugs, not USB cables. So I think the USB port needs some kind of adaptor.   I tested the few USB cables I was able to find, and they only transferred data, not electricity (they didn’t charge up while connected to either a computer or the FLAP battery).  This includes the fancy Nokia E63 that I use when I travel.  So either I’m missing something (highly possible!), or the bag needs to come with a cheap universal electricity/USB cable, or if the system is built locally, cables for the most popular phone types could be included or manufactured as an accessory.  There are also different ways that people charge locally that could be looked at (though these are probably imported, worth a look?), for example, the universal charger in the photo above, which I’ve also seen in Senegal. You can connect a camera or phone battery directly.  Perhaps an idea to think about.  Another option might be something like this universal charger that was announced in October 2009, though it may not be compatible with existing phones that people already own.

Cost at ‘BoP’.

The cost is currently too high for people at the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BoP).  It probably needs to come down to $5-$10 for the solar panel/battery/light. Research on income, similar products (if available), current phone charging costs/costs for candles/other light sources, and perceived value would help to find realistic price point.  People don’t normally carry bags where I was, except for backpacks for school, made out of very inexpensive plastic/vinyl. Some ideas that people had on where to put a solar panel included: on school backpacks, curtains, cloths, parasols, clothing, foldable panels that can be taken out and set up at the market or while doing outside work during the day, or something to set in a back window or on top of a car. Photo: Common style of school backpacks in Mozambique.

‘Cost per beneficiary’/ROI at NGOs.

One person at a large global NGO read my recent blog post and got very excited about the possibility of children having light to study by at night.  When I revealed the cost, however, even at $50, the ‘cost per beneficiary’ that many NGOs adhere to due to internal rules or donor expectations was too high.  It would be interesting for FLAP to find/do/publish some research on the benefits of light in education, learning, future income, etc., or cost saving in other areas by having solar light. This could be combined with research on economic benefits of mobile phones and the costs for charging locally (eg., in Mozambique this is about 10 MTs/day or USD $0.40) to make the case for FLAP. (Maybe this is already being done).   I’m not sure if most NGOs currently include environmental benefits as a main factor when measuring ROI, but these kinds of numbers would be helpful to inform decisions.

‘MoP’ Uses.

The bag in its current form at a mid-range price (e.g. $30-45?) could be widely used at the “Middle of the Pyramid.”  NGOs already spend on camera batteries, bags, etc. for staff as part of normal operations, and if they were manufactured locally they could generate local business.  In the case of Plan (where I work), for example, staff take lots of photos for sponsorship and program operations.  Using rechargeable digital camera batteries and FLAP, savings over time could potentially offset the costs, and could be one concrete way to start reducing negative environmental impact.  So a good entry point for FLAP could be NGO workers, university students, government workers who spend time in communities and need to keep their phones or digital cameras charged up for mobile data gathering or collecting data, surveys, etc. in ‘the field.’  Another possible link would be with the Peace Corps or other large organizations that equip their volunteers or staff with essential gear before sending them to live/work in rural communities.

Note on who I was talking with:

In order to qualify things, I did a little unscientific research.  While everyone at our workshop was together in the same room, I read 6 statements, and asked them to raise their hands if the statement was true.  We had around 45 kids in the room, roughly 75% male/25% female, between the ages of 12 and 20, attending secondary school and living in communities within a 1 hour radius (by public transportation) from the school.  The school is located along a main road, put in 3 years ago, and the communities/commerce along the road are growing.  Also in the room were 10 adult teachers/local NGO partners/folks from national radio stations living in the district.  I suppose you would consider the students “poor” by typical global standards, however the fact that they are attending secondary school means that they are not the poorest of the poor. Teacher salaries are around 3,000 MTs/month or about $100.  Photo:  The phones that were at the workshop.

The results:

· 34% had their own mobile phones (more than half of this % were adults)

· 100% of their families had mobile phones

· 25% of personal or family’s phones had a USB cable

· 25% of the phones can connect to internet

· 24% had used the internet at least once before the workshop

· 43% have electricity at home

I asked everyone in the room to put their phones on the table (photo above).  You can see that the most popular types of phones are the Nokia 1100 or 1200 (which do not come with a USB cable, though I believe they do have a 5-prong USB jack).

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People often ask me 2 questions.  How did I end up spending the 90s in El Salvador and how did I get into NGO work?  I usually give the 140 character verbal version. But the turning point was 20 years ago this week. So here is the longer story.

Back in 1989, I was in my senior year of college, studying anthropology at the University of Southern California (USC) and living in the mid-Wilshire district, home of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang and one of the most violent sections of Los Angeles.  The 5th floor window of my 1920s apartment building overlooked a mini-mall where the “underground economy” (as my anthropology teacher liked to call it) took place.  (I suppose today you’d call them “anti-social entrepreneurs”? J) Stolen credit cards were used at the public phone on the corner to call El Salvador and Guatemala.  Newly initiated teenaged gang members stole handbags and necklaces.  Older, tattooed MS smoked cigarettes and observed their territory, or took out bags of brown marijuana at the outside picnic tables, rolling joints and smoking them in public. Throwing up the 18th St. hand sign would get you in big trouble as this was MS territory.

On the other side of the mini mall parking lot, gunshots would go off now and then on Normandie between 7th and 8th, where the MS ran crack.  Dealers and buyers used the apartment buildings there, gorgeous old style art deco places that had lost the battle, to hide from police.  One morning I was awakened by a crazed, dreadlocked squatter leaning out a window singing Sly Stone at the top of his lungs.  I was fascinated and decided to do my senior anthropology project about this ‘underground economy’. I didn’t imagine it would be dangerous since I was part of the neighborhood and no one ever bothered me, aside from saying “hola mamacita” when I passed through on my way to the mini-mart.

I first needed an informant who wouldn’t harass me, and I decided on one of the guys that I would see often in the parking lot, hanging around chatting people up.  He worked in the local video store.  He wasn’t tattooed and didn’t seem like a gang member, but he seemed to know everyone.  He didn’t call me mamacita or make kissing noises when I walked past; he’d just flash me a dazzling smile and say ‘hey-lo’.  So I started asking him about the neighborhood, the structure of the MS. Who did what and why.  Where people came from.  What the graffiti meant.. Though he wasn’t a gang member, he knew everyone.  (“That’s how you stay safe here. You has to know them so they protect you.”) His cousin was ‘in the business’ so I got the lowdown on the structure and business strategies of the drug trade in the neighborhood. My Spanish was virtually non-existent and his English was only about 2 steps above that, but we managed to communicate.

Guillermo, “Memo” for short , was 24 at the time.  He had come into the US via Mexico when he was 18, during the peak of the civil war, because he felt trapped by parental disputes and the bleak situation in El Salvador. He feared being recruited into one or the other side of the conflict raging in his country.  Despite horrific human rights abuses — massacres, death squads, tortures and many disappeared, the US was pouring billions of dollars into supporting the rightwing military government.  US policy was that El Salvador was a ‘democracy’ thus it was virtually impossible for Salvadorans to seek entry to the US legally or be granted refugee status.  Nicaragua and Cuba?  Quite another story.

Memo had grown up in the room of a meson (a U-shaped one-story building made of adobe and tin, with 8-10  rooms surrounding a central courtyard and shared latrine/bathing area/washing area) in one of the oldest barrios in the heart of San Salvador. Some people in the barrio sold tortillas or juice.  Some sold fruits and vegetables in the Central Market, shined shoes, or dealt in metal pieces dredged up from the bottom of the Rio Acelhuate, the river-turned-sewer running alongside the barrio, or stolen side view mirrors at the hardware market. There were impromptu car repair shops and tiendas. Some women in the barrio went door-to-door selling freshly made snacks, and some were sex workers in the red light district a couple blocks away. The local economy was mostly informal, supplemented in large part by money sent home from relatives in the US or Australia.

Memo was a handful as a child. His upbringing was difficult but upright, notable from his good manners and clean-cut appearance.  As a boy, he’d studied up to 9th grade. He had passed his afternoons locked in the small room at the meson, kicking a soccer ball around with his older brother while his parents worked. They did their best to keep their sons out of trouble. Memo’s mother was a seamstress and his father a hired driver in the Central Market. Memo had begun working as an apprentice in a mechanic shop at age 12.

His journey to the US took place over a period of about 4 and a half months in 1983, most of it spent in Mexico working to save up for the rest of the trip.  He arrived to Los Angeles where his cousin and brother already lived, moving into a one-bedroom apartment with 7 other guys.  He struggled to find work, losing 4 jobs due to lack of papers but finally found a job through the Salvadoran owner of the video store (who was also involved in the drug trade).

I was fascinated by the world I was getting a look into, and by Memo himself …and the feeling was mutual.  We started going out and on Thanksgiving in 1989 we decided to get married. I was only 21, and life was getting more interesting every day. (Credit to my parents for being highly concerned but reasonably hands-off. I only wonder how I’d feel if it was my daughter!) In 1991, we decided to move down to El Salvador, in spite of the fact that the civil war was still going on.

It was my first time traveling out of the States.  My new in-laws greeted me at the meson with a stilted welcome and a brand new toilet seat that I was supposed to carry to the latrine with me to place on top of the ‘stone chimney.’  They were embarrassed at the conditions they could offer to their son’s gringuita.  We set up house in the meson for about a year, and all eventually moved a half block down the alley way into 2 side-by-side apartments. We used our total savings to purchase our place for around $3,000.  (Photo above is the Barrio in 2009).

Memo picked his job back up as a mechanic in the local car shop and we lived on around $3/day for our first 3 years.  Barrio Candelaria was an amazing place.  My neighbors welcomed me with open arms and I easily became part of barrio life. Eventually we bought a refrigerator and some furniture. On weekends we’d walk a few blocks to downtown get ice cream cones or pizza as a treat. I learned to be a Salvadoran housewife. Niña Alicia, my mother-in-law, taught me to cook, clean, go to the market and small talk with the other women at the Sunday soccer games.  She also found Niña Lita, a warm and gentle midwife, to ‘sovarme’ (give me monthly belly massages) and to deliver my son Daniel at home in April 1992. I didn’t trust the conditions at the public hospital. Niña Lita was 70 years old and had been delivering babies since age 15, including her own 15 children, so I felt safe with her. I read voraciously on pregnancy and birth in order to be as prepared as possible.

Three months before Daniel was born, the war ended in Peace Accords and a huge celebration in the plaza a few blocks from our house. Memo enrolled in and completed high school in the evenings and graduated as Valedictorian, moving on to also complete his university degree. I got a job as an English teacher at a private school.  I also started a class at the National University.  It was the first time that 20th century history had ever been taught in El Salvador due to the conflict and government prohibitions to discuss certain events during that time.  A classmate was a Finnish girl, around my age.  Her father was the head of an NGO and they were looking for a translator.  I gave up my teaching job to take this one, and eventually moved into programs and communications. I’ve been in NGO work ever since.

Niña Lita attended me again in 1996 when my daughter Clare was born.  At 10 and a half pounds, it was a difficult birth, and she was so purple that at first I imagined she was dead…. but either Niña Lita was an expert or I got lucky, and we both survived.  The post-war violence and crime continued to worsen. People said that post-war was worse than during the war because it was now randomized violence, and you never knew where it would find you.  I witnessed several incidents on the bus and saw people stabbed downtown in broad daylight for a watch or wallet, but somehow came out untouched.

With my NGO job, our conditions improved over time and we were able to buy a car and send the kids to an affordable nearby private school – the level of education at the public schools near the barrio was very low.  Memo had also gotten a job at an NGO, doing HIV/AIDS prevention and rehabilitation work with inmates in the Salvadoran prison system.  We never considered moving out of the barrio since we felt safe there and Memo’s parents were next door. Every step outside the barrio though, and you knew you might not come home.  The very day I sat in my interview to start work with Plan, my second NGO job, Memo and his colleagues were assaulted on a rural road by 4 masked men with big guns and held for several hours on a plantation.  He came home stunned and depressed, missing his shoes and watch.  The elderly plantation guard, armed with only his machete, was killed in the incident.

Cultural differences and the fact that I worked and traveled a lot began to create friction. The palpable sense of random violence and crime everywhere outside the barrio added to the stress. I started to run up against limits on what I could do and achieve in El Salvador and felt trapped.  So for many of the same reasons that Memo fled from El Salvador in 1983, so did I in 2001. We parted ways and I moved back to the US with the kids. We have remained good friends and keep in touch, and we go to visit whenever we have enough money for tickets, which unfortunately is never often enough.

So, when people ask me what they should study in order to have a job like mine or how I ended up in El Salvador, I’m a bit hard pressed on what to answer. I usually give a short version that goes something like: “well, I got married to a Salvadoran and joined an NGO in El Salvador,” since the long one is pretty personal and my path to NGO work is not quite something you want to hear about at a job fair. What I do tell some people is that it’s really not what you study, it’s how you grab onto the opportunities that life offers to you and flow with them to see where you end up. It’s being willing to take risks, to follow your heart and do what you are passionate about. You don’t know where you may end up, in development or in something totally different.  But the trip will be well worth it.  20 years later… I look back and I wouldn’t change a thing.

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