Technology and Civil Society in West Africa: the Advent of a New Era
We currently live in a dynamic world where people are constantly creating new innovations to find better ways of doing things. Thanks to these innovations, our world is witnessing a new era sparked by technology. By changing old practices and being at the centre of any activity undertaken, technology has revolutionalised organisational development. Companies, businesses, and entities both in the private and public sector are shifting from old and traditional practices to using information and communication technology (ICT) to boost performance, maximise resources, and improve efficiency.
Technological innovations attract immense rewards to its beneficiaries. However, it is evident that CSOs still lag behind with regards to getting a hold of ICT as they encounter several challenges in this domain. CSOs have so far not been able to fully adapt to this new era of the digital revolution.
I recently participated in an onsite coaching exercise under the technology capacity strengthening project for human rights organisations in Ghana; the Human Rights Advocacy Centre (HRAC) and the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). This experience exposed me to the impact and usefulness of technology to CSOs. I garnered a first-hand experience on how CSOs can use technology to better manage their workload.
The capacity strengthening project is the outcome of a collaboration between the Open Society Foundation’s Human Rights Initiative (HRI) and the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). The project was borne out of the ICT related challenges faced by many human rights organisations in West Africa. The project has the objective of boosting the efficiency of human rights organisations through technology.
Some technology challenges faced by human rights organisations in Ghana
According to a survey conducted in 2017 by MARSH & McLENNAN Agency, the most serious technological challenge that non-profit organisations face is related to data security.
Data security challenges: During the first phase of the project which consisted of a needs assessment, the team found out that the HRAC and the CHRI had difficulties in protecting data. The two organisations had challenges in having a fully operational antivirus. Additionally, CHRI had an unstable server with no standard data backup system. Such a situation is risky for any organisation. Data could be lost from computers and other electronic storage devices in the advent of a disaster such as a flood or fire. Some of the staff revealed that documents can disappear and pop up at any time hence making it almost impossible to access information at particular moments when they are most needed.
Use of outdated software: According to WIPFLI Brittenford System, one of the challenges facing CSOs in this modern era is the use of very outdated software. In some parts of the region, some CSO staff use unlicensed software such as Microsoft Office. CHRI and HRAC experienced similar challenges. Some staff admitted using outdated software. CHRI did not have a facility that could facilitate staff to work online. For example, to edit a word document by several colleagues, they had to exchange several emails. “I can literally not work from home”, a staff of CHRI said.
HRAC and CHRI indicated that the situation was retarding their work and was a source of frustration.
Non-representative Websites: An observation during the assessment was that the organisations did not have representative websites that could effectively communicate their messages to their audiences and facilitates engagement with them. According to WIPFLI Brittenford Systems, a clean and adequate website is the most important asset for a non-profit organisation. This is the only way for them to attract and keep donors, and better communicate about their activities for more visibility.
Insufficient technical capacity: Some staff of CSOs in West Africa do not have the skills to handle highly technically demanding tech roles; to develop or manage websites, set up and manage social media platforms, prevent or resolve network bugs or email hitches among others. The tech lead of HRAC admitted that managing their website was very cumbersome. This responsibility was handled by a resource person whose availability was not wholly guaranteed. This is common with many other CSOs and it attracts challenges such as the untimely updating of the sites, hence no visibility of many African CSOs.
Solutions implemented by the project team.
Although many CSOs in West Africa encounter significant ICT related challenges in their day-to-day work, there exist several user-friendly technological tools that CSOs can use to enhance their efficiency and scale up their interventions and impact.
WACSI developed a three-phase programme to support CHRI and HRAC to address the few tech-related challenges they encountered. The first phase focused on short training to build up the technological skill of the organisations. This led to the development and adoption of an action plan. The second phase focused on the implementation of the action plan to overcome the challenges. Then, came the third phase of onsite coaching and mentoring where the organisations were closely supported.
During this third phase, the feedback received by WACSI’s team reflected very positive changes. “I am now able to work faster”, said Esther Ahulu, Programme Officer at the CHRI. The improvement came after the purchase of adequate network equipment (Windows Server User Cal) and an appropriate configuration and network setup. This stabilised the server, increased its speed and now allows the staff to better retrieve data and work even offline. This gave Esther and her colleagues an experience they never had prior to WACSI’s support.
The organisation also registered with TechSoup. WACSI partnered with TechSoup to enable West African CSOs to access highly affordable and efficient technological tools that will enhance their work.
Thanks to TechSoup, the organisations were able to purchase the licensed software at a highly discounted cost. Some of the software purchased were the Windows Server User Cal, Microsoft Office 2016, Office Professional, and many others. These contributed to enhancing both their productivity and efficiency.
HRAC is currently running the trial version of Office 365. This will improve the mail system and promote teamwork online through the working group system. The software will also allow them to edit documents in live and help them work even when they are out of office.
With the help of the funds made available by the project (seed funding), a proper backup system was built with the purchase of an external drive. This system ensures that all information can be protected and retrieved in the event of a data crash. By securing their computers with BitDefender, data produced and shared is more secured. The acquisition of two new computers changed the game and outlook of the CHRI by helping them work faster.
The IT personnel of HRAC also highly commended the project. “The only thing I can say is thank you. Our old website was incomplete, and all the coding needed to upload a single document or change a simple title was time-consuming and could not allow me to do other things. Today, there is no need for an IT person to work on the website as it is now user friendly. I can now work on other tasks.”
Considering the experiences of both organisations, it is evident that employing technology to the work of CSOs is a game-changer. The feeling of fulfilment, achievement and satisfaction expressed by CHRI and HRAC is indicative that a new era of progress on the back of ICT has come. The joy expressed by their staff is a testimony of the relevance of ICT to development actors. ICT is indeed a game-changer that every progressive CSO must embrace to cope and compete in this fast-paced global society.
NOTE: Opinion expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the West Africa Civil Society Institute.