A few years ago, I was in Macedonia, sitting in a living room of someone who ran the radio station for the Roma "ghetto" in Skopje. I discovered that while he had a full computer set-up in his basement, it was only being used by his kids to download MP3 files. He wasn't using it for his work at all.
It struck me then that I had seen this scenario many times in different guises; computers as desk ornaments in directors' offices or NGO portals linking to "brochure" sites with news dating from two years ago. Despite donors' efforts to provide training sessions, establish Internet centers, set up ISPs, fund NGO portals, and provide equipment, it seemed that groups on the ground were just not taking up the digital challenge. Most of them only embraced e-mail.
It's true that there were (and still are) a range of reasons for this recurring scenario: bad investments, poor long-term funding plans, etc. However, there seemed to be one common theme: lack of quality technical advice and support.
At the Information Program of the Open Society Institute, where I worked as program manager, we began a discussion about how best to fill this need. It became apparent that if organizations had access to consultants with expertise in the NGO sector and a strong knowledge of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), they could really use the resources at hand. To go one step further, we were pretty sure that with the right advice, these groups could use new technologies to facilitate their projects, improve collaboration, and make their advocacy work and campaigns more effective.
Around the same time, we began hearing of projects in North America that tailored advice and training to nonprofits. In particular, we began talking to people about circuit riders (roving NGO ICT consultants) and discussing the idea of appropriating this model for developing countries. We weren't the only ones thinking this way, and around this time we met the Advocacy Project, which was about to become a major partner of ours. We were all curious; what would happen when we try this model elsewhere?
Experimenting with the eRider Model Internationally
The key to creating successful projects is in the people and the design. Generally, local projects with local eRiders (the international version of circuit riders) seem to work best. The eRiders should have an NGO background, technical experience, and a flair for explaining technology. We've found that it's often best for eRiders to work in teams of five or more run by an organized leader, and with each eRider working with around 20 NGOs each year.
After getting our feet wet with our partners in Kosova and Poland, we became bolder and developed projects in Kazakhstan, Georgia, and with Roma groups across southeastern and Central Europe. We've found that the circuit rider concept fits a variety of situations, whether we're supporting a particular sector, such as social service NGOs in Poland, or pushing a particular issue, such as the use of Open Source by NGOs in Bulgaria.
Each project is driven by a theme, which may be a specific issue or a particular sector. This is what allows the eRiders to have a "bumblebee" effect; they pick up ideas and projects from one organization and use them in others. These themes give the eRiders real focus and expertise in a particular sector. The aim, from the donor perspective, is that the more focused the project is on a particular sector or issue, the more change it is possible to see over time, because the organizations can learn so much from each other.
As we plan projects in new countries, we have begun to see that the cost per organization of this model is more reasonable than we had originally thought. When the projects are local, with a fairly reasonable number of eRiders to offset the initial high set-up and training costs, these projects are not only affordable but ultimately a good investment that can really increase the impact of the NGO.
The evidence so far indicates that not only is the eRider model a viable one when localized to different environments (be they vRiders -- video riders in Ecuador or eMsafirisSAFIRIs (African eRiders providing service to schools), but that it is also flexible in that it's adaptable to different project needs; progressive in that it moves beyond just access to technology into mission-driven use; and even revolutionary if combined with access to tailored Open Source tools that lead to a significant change in how these groups handle information.
Over the past two years, we have made some headway in our individual projects and the results so far confirm our original hypothesis, that providing specialized consultancy could be the impetus NGOs need. However, in my opinion, these projects are currently isolated pilot projects.
The questions for us are no longer: What will happen when we localize this model?; How can we help local groups plan a project?; What problems will we face?; and, How can we provide access to training for eRiders?
Instead, we face deeper questions that, if resolved, may help us fully realize the potential of the eRider model: How do we foster learning across projects? How do we provide support to projects running in several countries simultaneously? How do we ensure that knowledge accrued by eRiders is shared and not proprietary? Most importantly, how can we ensure that neither we nor our international colleagues own the exchange between eRiders, but that the eRiders themselves own communal resources like listservs and Web sites?
The Value of Exchange
The exchange of information, ideas, and tools within the budding international eRider network has the potential to set the eRider network apart from its corporate counterparts. Stories can be shared (how an NGO network developed an information campaign), tips exchanged (how to work with a generator), tools reviewed (pros and cons of online content management systems) and questions answered (such as which computer/fax system to recommend). This is unlike corporate consultancy models where knowledge is proprietary and creates monetary value.
Individual eRider projects vastly increase their chance of success when they can avoid reinventing the wheel and learn from each other. The eRider network therefore requires forums for exchange, lists for announcements and requests (like the U.S. riders list), open databases or other repositories that point to resources and tools, and "round-up" and skillshare events where eRiders can establish relationships.
Economies of Collaboration
Through local eRiders working together across borders on these repositories, events, and perhaps even tools, it will be possible to achieve a kind of economy of collaboration. With the work spread between groups, the project could become affordable and realistic to implement. Local eRider projects may even be able to share and recruit specialized expertise (for example, in secure communications) with others, saving them from having to build the expertise themselves.
In addition, the international eRider movement can benefit from the growing U.S. NGO technology sector, and surely the U.S. sector would benefit from the development of an international movement.
Moving beyond this, it is possible to imagine a scenario whereby such a network made up of practitioners from different regions may even be able to help support international projects spread across many countries.
It is now our task to share our best practices and promote this model, with the hope that local groups start similar projects and donors support the further development of the movement.
Stephanie Hankey runs the ICTs for Civil Society project of the Open Society Institute (Soros Foundation Network). The project strives to enable NGOs in developing countries to be more efficient and to do more effective advocacy using ICTs. She is also the co-founder of the Tactical Technology Collective, an Amsterdam-based NGO that provides support to civil society organizations worldwide to use new technologies as a tactical tool.