How NGOs can work with big Internet firms to overcome the digital divide

A man installs Internet connectivity lines at an orphanage in Ghana. How can nongovernmental organizations engage with big tech players to break the digital divide? Photo by: oneVillage Initiative / CC BY-SA

Global tech players such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft are touting a plethora of options to break down the digital divide, from a new wave of higher-throughput satellites to Internet balloons and drones.

An array of initiatives in individual countries means there is some uncertainty among the global development community on how the mix of technologies will ultimately look in developing regions.

How this all pans out is of crucial importance for nongovernmental organizations and the donors that support them — and there are a number of ways they can give themselves a voice and help drive a desirable outcome.

Devex spoke to experts in the sector to get the inside track and glean advice on how NGOs can better work and engage with big Internet firms. Here are our key takeaways:

1. Form and make effective use of partnerships.

Organizations such as NetHope and the Alliance for Affordable Internet — known as A4AI — bring together civil society, public and private sector actors. Crucially, they also count the big tech players among their members or partners, so for NGOs that engage, they provide a forum for helping shape the technology landscape.

Lauren Woodman, CEO of NetHope, emphasized how the ability of such organizations to help aggregate demand could be key to future success. Nonprofits are often resource-constrained if they seek to purchase quality communication services on their own, she said. “But if you put 10 of those organizations together and you share that bandwidth, it turns out you can get better service and better quality at lower rates.”

This was the principle behind DadaabNet, a high-speed network that NetHope set up in 2012 with other organizations and local telecoms providers in the huge refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, to enable collaboration among the many agencies working there. Woodman said NGOs in the camp previously had their own very expensive satellites, but this collaboration has driven demand up and costs down.

2. Use these partnerships to keep on top of new connectivity options.

Through alliances such as NetHope, NGOs can also position themselves at the forefront when new tech options get up and running. Jack Deasy, director of government solutions at O3b Networks, a satellite provider backed by Google and other investors, said the company has been in discussions with NetHope and other NGO bodies about deploying such a solution.

O3b uses satellites in a much lower orbit than traditional ones to help boost performance and reduce costs. Its new discussions center on a base station much smaller than those it currently has that could be rapidly set up and provide data rates 10-100 times faster than normally available in areas where natural or human disasters have damaged local telecoms infrastructure. A partner organization could act as an aggregator, with NGOs then able to use the service.

Deasy said O3b could have a working model up and running in early 2016. “Nobody has this model today,” he said. “We think we have a unique offering.”

3. Make connectivity a key focus.

“NGOs need to make connectivity a priority,” said Kojo Boakye, deputy director and policy lead at A4AI. “We still have NGOs who will argue — and in some cases, they may be justified — that the provision of bed nets or vaccinations is far more important than the Internet, which should be bottom of the list in terms of priorities.”

Boakye did not want to say whether it should be number one on their agenda, “but it should certainly be uppermost in their thoughts.”

He said technology is critical because it can ultimately have an impact on every other priority that organizations may have, from health to education, adding that it could also benefit NGOs to be more commercially minded when it comes to interacting with the major tech players.

4. Realize that there is no technological panacea.

There are a host of initiatives on the table — so which to choose?

Experts say there is no single solution, and that it will ultimately take a mixture of appropriate solutions. Many are being tested, some remain seeds of ideas, and ultimately some will fail.

One that has already run some projects and trials is Microsoft with the use of TV white spaces to provide Internet access in countries including Ghana, Kenya, Namibia and South Africa. Frank McCosker, general manager of affordable access and smart financing at Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative, said the technology has been shown to work and the next step includes looking into other affordable business models.

Although Microsoft does not tend to work directly with NGOs on TV white spaces, the technology can help to expand overall access, and NetHope has been involved in projects it runs in Kenya and Botswana — in the latter, helping support the provision of Internet connectivity and telemedicine services to hospitals and clinics. The United States Agency for International Development has also been involved as a backer.

But Jonathan Dolan, a senior adviser for digital inclusion in the U.S. Global Development Lab at USAID, said that although the agency has supported this technology, it is not picking a single winner. “We see it as a currently available low-cost way of extending access to rural areas, but we are technology-agnostic,” he said.

And it is still early days, even for white spaces. Dolan said NGOs should be “open-minded” when it comes to pushing for particular technologies, with context key in the situation being addressed — something he said USAID can help them work out.

“It depends on [factors such as] local policies and regulations, and whether you’re looking to reach urban poor or rural communities,” he said, adding that affordability is clearly a guiding factor.

5. Push for the right content to be delivered to the right people.

It’s all well and good finding great and innovative ways of connecting people, but no use if you don’t have appropriate content once that is achieved.

For Sevi Simavi, CEO of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, “tackling the digital divide isn’t just about putting a mobile phone in a woman’s hand, or connecting her to the Internet. It’s also about creating digital content and services that meet the needs of underserved communities and effecting behaviour change for them to engage with that content.”

Simavi pointed to the foundation’s work in areas such as promoting financial inclusion through the provision of mobile financial services to female entrepreneurs.

In this regard, ensuring relevant content is crucial. Its importance was demonstrated earlier this year, when a wide array of organizations lobbied Facebook over its platform, perceiving it to be operating a “walled garden” for select content approved by itself and local Internet service providers.

The subsequent launch of Facebook’s Free Basics — an open program for developers to create services that integrate with — indicates that a collective voice can have an effect on opening up the Internet, even if it may happen in small, incremental steps.

“Facebook and other companies do take these criticisms on board,” said Boakye. “I think this shows a willingness to work with others to understand the challenges and issues that others have, and to try and change.”

A representative for Facebook told Devex that the company’s goal with Free Basics is “to work with as many developers and entrepreneurs as possible, to extend the benefits of connectivity to diverse, local communities,” adding that several development actors already provide key services via Free Basics, including UNICEF, the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action and Malaria No More.

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About the author

  • Gareth Willmer

    Gareth Willmer is a freelance writer and subeditor based in London. His main coverage areas are science, technology and telecoms, as well as how changes and advances in these areas affect the developing world. He regularly works for publications including New Scientist and SciDev.Net, and previously worked as a subeditor for Nature.