How the Social Sector Thinks About Tech Is Wrong

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Development & Aid, Headlines


Instead of investing resources in building a solution from scratch, it’s smarter to research existing solutions and tools that can be modified for specific needs, the authors say. Credit: Unsplash / Marvin M

Oct 26 2021 (IPS) – Today, technology has become integral to almost all aspects of work—from implementing and standardising processes and collecting data to monitoring and evaluation and helping an organisation scale. This was increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when all organisations turned to technologies like WhatsApp and Zoom to stay connected and deliver their programmes to communities. And yet in the nonprofit sector, tech is viewed as an overhead rather than being fundamental to the functioning of an organisation.

When building budgets for programmes, nonprofits (and donors) must change their mindsets and look at tech as core infrastructure; without this orientation, organisations lose out because they are bearing the cost of technology anyway. It makes no sense not to account for it properly.

We misunderstand technology

1. Tech is an enabler, not the solution

When it comes to nonprofits implementing tech, there are a few misconceptions or assumptions we have encountered during our work at Tech4Dev. The first misconception is that tech is the solution. Tech is, in fact, an enabler—it enables an effective, efficient solution. It cannot by itself solve problems. For example, using tech for mobile data collection is superb.

However, to use this technology effectively, an organisation must have the processes and systems in place to know what data to collect, the audience from whom they will collect the data, and the field staff trained in the system and reasonably knowledgeable about data collection and biases. In such a scenario, tech enables high-quality data collection, but the secret is in the organisation process.

2. It’s not about the size of an organisation

The second misconception is that there is a ‘right size’ an organisation needs to get to before implementing tech solutions. In other words, tech is not for smaller grassroots organisations. A better way to think about this would be to ask yourself: Do I currently have a solution for the problem at hand, and do I have a systematic way of implementing that solution? If the answer is yes, then size should not be a factor at all.

For instance, we’ve seen small organisations use Google Sheets extremely effectively. So you can use cheap tech at a small scale, and you can also use cheap tech on a large scale. We’ve also seen really poor tech being used in both small organisations as well as large ones.

So it’s not about size but about having a systematic approach, because even though tech makes things more efficient, it also tends to add more complexity and introduce another element that employees will have to learn and work with.

We were working with a nonprofit organisation—let’s call it Team Health—that had a large number of fieldworkers, from whom they would receive data via multiple channels including WhatsApp, emails, and phone calls. None of this data arrived in a standardised or structured manner, nor was any of it recorded. Team Health wanted to change this.

They were keen to introduce an app, assuming that all their fieldworkers would know how to enter the requisite information in the exact way that the tech required, and that would lead to them having standardised data exactly how they needed it.

But because their processes at the time were not standardised, and their fieldworkers were accustomed to a certain way of submitting data, the app would not solve their problem. In fact, it might have made things worse had they gone down that path.

3. Asking donors to ‘fund tech

The third misconception among organisations is that funders are hesitant to pay for tech. Instead of asking donors to ‘fund technology’, nonprofits should articulate why technology is important to the organisation’s core functioning.

They must incorporate it as such in their proposals. We need to educate the funder ecosystem as well as the nonprofit ecosystem for this to become a reality.

Take the case of an organisation—Team Sanitation—working on community toilets for the urban poor in India. They used a fair amount of technology for data collection and geographic information system (GIS) mapping in their day-to-day operations.

These tools were core to their project, and so Team Sanitation started incorporating all costs associated with using these technologies (for example, licensing and operational costs) as necessary project costs in their funding proposals.

And they haven’t got any pushback from donors for doing so. As long as organisations can demonstrate the need for tech within their programmes, most donors will not have any issues supporting such core expenses.

4. Thinking that a custom tech solution needs to be built from scratch

The fourth mistake many organisations make is to think that they need to build custom tech solutions from scratch. But before thinking about this nonprofits need to define their problems and needs.

Detailing what their top problems are, why they are important, and how they impact the work that they are trying to do can help them understand where tech might help, and where it might not. If tech is in fact the way to go, then it’s important to acknowledge that very few nonprofits have a unique problem that they need solved.

The context, communities, and resources might differ, but fundamentally the problem a nonprofit is trying to solve has likely been attempted or solved by somebody else already.

For instance, let’s take the case of an organisation that is in the business of training primary school teachers, and finds that doing this at scale, in person, is cost-prohibitive. Surely, there are others that have faced this issue of cost and scale, and have worked on a solution.

Even still, in the nonprofit sector, there is a tendency to build custom tech platforms when they are not needed. Both funders and nonprofits have been burnt by this, where a solution was built, and in some cases the investment had to be written off, and in others there was little progress to show for it.

Custom tech is not only a waste of resources, time, and effort, but it is also not scalable. For this reason, instead of investing resources in building a solution from scratch, it’s smarter to research existing solutions and tools that can be modified for specific needs.

We’ve seen multiple custom builds of mobile data collection platforms, case management systems, and customer relationship management (CRM) systems across different nonprofits, most of which were inferior and lacking compared to the current open-source and commercially available solutions. ‘Research before build’ is a mantra we follow quite religiously within Tech4Dev.

We need to build a culture of collaboration and sharing knowledge where everyone benefits

Given that there are existing solutions to problems that several nonprofits are trying to solve, the question arises: What are the barriers to accessing such information?

Most nonprofits do not have the technological knowledge or expertise that is helpful in thinking about what tools might be useful for their specific problem. Connecting the dots between the problem and potentially useful technologies is usually the responsibility of the software partner.

However, since software partners often have limited experience in the social sector, their approach to an organisation’s problem is to simply build a solution specifically for the nonprofit. This is far from ideal. Not only do we need software partners that are well versed with the social sector and the problems nonprofits are trying to solve, but we also need nonprofits to strengthen their understanding of tech.

In order to do this, we need to build a knowledge base for tech that everyone can learn from—nonprofits, donors, and software partners. This kind of open ecosystem will also help funders realise when they are funding similar solutions across multiple organisations, and it will help organisations learn from each other’s work.

We must prioritise open-source publishing of the work

To build an accessible ecosystem, the first step is to share existing knowledge with all the relevant stakeholders. Nonprofits should publish their programmes, challenges, solutions, and learning in the public domain. For example, if a nonprofit is spending 300 hours working on a project, it should spend at least 10 hours creating open-source material that helps people understand what it is that they are doing.

Creating awareness through open-sourced content is crucial for organisations in the social sector so they can learn from and support each other better. While this might not happen right away, as more and more nonprofits share their expertise, the social sector can start to build these broader ecosystems faster. Organisations must ideally move beyond the fear of sharing their ‘trade secrets’, in recognition of the fact that paying it forward will benefit them in the long run.

Donors and intermediary organisations have an important role to play

Organisations like IDinsight do an amazing job publishing their work on a timely basis as seen from their blog and LinkedIn pages. Sharing this information helps distribute knowledge across a wide variety of ecosystem players, hence strengthening the ecosystem.

Donors can nudge these organisations to publish their work as it is being done to help disseminate the knowledge as early as possible. We should never wait till we have the perfect, well-crafted report. Publishing things as the work is being done is another mantra for the projects we run within Tech4Dev.

In India today, the onus of facilitating the building of an ecosystem falls more on funders and intermediary organisations than it does on nonprofits. This is because nonprofits are resource-constrained and devote majority of their efforts to their programmes. Moreover, they do not have the kind of influence and clout that donors have, and might not have the skills either.

The first step that funders can take is to move away from traditional contracts that restrict sharing of content and intellectual property (IP) and towards sharing IP in the public domain. Further, given that funders typically work with multiple organisations within a specific sector, they might be better positioned to see the bigger picture here.

They can also help nonprofits choose software partners. Here, they must be sensitive to the skewed funder–nonprofit power dynamic, and play a supportive role rather than a directive one. There is a lot that funders can do to strengthen the tech ecosystem within the social sector. Unfortunately, there are very few donors and organisations focused on this ecosystem.

We need a much greater push towards building ecosystems and platforms at a much faster rate, and providing adequate support to sustain them. The social sector needs such spaces so they can integrate technology better and more smartly across the work they do.

Donald Lobo serves as executive director of the Chintu Gudiya Foundation, a private family foundation based in San Francisco, CA, that funds US-based nonprofits and organisations developing open-source software for the public good. 

Sanjeev Dharap is an entrepreneur and start-up adviser, and has worked in Silicon Valley for over 25 years. He holds an MTech in Computer Science from Pune University, India, and a PhD in Computer Science from Penn State University. He has been involved with Tech4Dev since early 2019

This story was originally published by India Development Review (IDR)


COP26 Could Get Hot, but Southern African Region Needs it to be Cool and Committed

Africa, Biodiversity, Climate Action, Climate Change, Conferences, Environment, Featured, Food and Agriculture, Headlines, Humanitarian Emergencies, TerraViva United Nations

Climate Action

The Southern African region is particularly vulnerable to climate change while only being responsible for a fraction of emissions. It is hoped that COP26 will deliver tangible benefits to the area which has already suffered severe impacts of climate change like the effects of Cyclone Idai, Mozambique, in March 2019. Credit: Denis Onyodi: IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre

Johannesburg, Oct 26 2021 (IPS) – COP26 is almost upon us, and dire warnings abound that it’s boom or bust for a greener future. Meanwhile, everybody boasts about what they will do to cool down our planet, but there is a disjuncture between talk and action. Even Queen Elizabeth II of the host country, the United Kingdom, has grumbled publicly that not enough action is taking place on climate change.

In the Southern Africa region, the SADC’s member countries are clear that the developed countries must stump up the money to help them deliver their promises to reduce carbon emissions and carry out a raft of measures to combat global warming. All the SADC countries are signatories to the Paris Agreement.

The region has joined the cry of other African countries that the continent suffers most from climate change but hardly contributes to the causes of the phenomenon – emitting less than 4% of the world’s greenhouse gasses.
According to research undertaken on behalf of the UN, climate change adaptation needs for Africa were estimated to be $715 billion ($0.715 trillion) between 2020 and 2030.

In southern Africa, each country has its own Nationally Developed Contribution plan for dealing with climate change, including costs. Of course, funding will be needed to achieve these goals. Developing countries have pledged a $100bn annual target to help the developing world tackle climate change. All the Southern African countries will need a slice of this funding. The Green Climate Fund was established under the Cancun Agreements in 2010 as a dedicated financing vehicle for developing countries.

In the lead up to COP26, the fund is under scrutiny. Tanguy Gahouma, chair of the African Group of Negotiators at COP26, has said: “African countries want a new system to track funding from wealthy nations that are failing to meet the $100bn annual target.”

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates this funding stood at $79.6bn in 2019. OECD data reveals that from 2016-19 Africa only got 26 percent of the funding.

Gahouma said a more detailed shared system was needed that would keep tabs on each country’s contribution and where it went on the ground.

“They say they achieved maybe 70 percent of the target, but we cannot see that,” Gahouma said.
“We need to have a clear road map how they will put on the table the $100bn per year, how we can track (it),” he said. “We don’t have time to lose, and Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions of the world.”

Amar Bhattacharya, from the Brookings Institution, says about the fund, “Some progress has been made – but a lot more needs to be done.”

Denmark’s development coordination minister Flemming Møller Mortensen has warned that only a quarter of international climate finance for developing countries goes to adaptation.

COP26 may turn into a squabble over money and perhaps an attack on developed countries as they are blamed for creating the problems of climate change in the first place by using fossil fuels for the last two centuries. G20 countries account for almost 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Again, it is all about the money. Many developed countries do not want to change; their economies (and their rich elites) are wedded to fossil fuels. There are also problems with paying for adaptation. Will the rich countries fund the developing countries to green themselves up?

Southern Africa will need to deal pragmatically with the outcomes of COP26 as it becomes crucial to deal with climate change impacts – like the vulnerability to intense storms like Cyclone Idai, which hit Mozambique in March 2019. Credit: Denis Onyodi: IFRC/DRK/Climate Centre

Professor Bruce Hewitson, the SARCHI Research Chair in Climate Change Climate System Analysis Group, Dept Environmental & Geographical Sciences at the University of Cape Town, told IPS: “The well-cited meme that Africa is the continent most vulnerable to climate change impacts is true, as is the common response that Africa needs external aid to implement adaptation and development pathways compatible to climate mitigation. However, such messages hide a myriad of political realities about the difference between what is ideal and what is likely.”

Hewitson argues that what emerges from COP26 is an exercise in hope and belief.

“It’s a tightrope walk trying to balance competing demands and self-interests. At the end of the day, Africa will need to pragmatically deal with a compromised outcome and face the climate challenges as best possible under limited resources,” he says.

If Africa goes to COP26 with a begging bowl attitude, it could face the risk of dancing to the strings of the powerful and rich nations.

“Climate change impacts Africa in a multiplicity of ways, but at the root is when the local climate change exceeds the viability threshold of our infrastructural and ecological systems. Hence, arguably the largest challenge to responding to climate change is to expand and enable the regional capacity of the science and decision-makers to responsibly steer our actions in an informed and cohesive way; Africa needs to lead the design of Africa’s solutions,” says Hewitson.

While he argues that some of the best innovation is happening in Africa, it requires resources, and the COVID-19 pandemic has decreased international funding.

“Each community has unique needs and unique challenges, needing unique local solutions that are context-sensitive and context-relevant, and this will inevitably include the pain of some socio-economic and political compromise.”
The southern African region’s climate woes chime with the problems faced by a legion of developing countries. We have Mauritius’s threatened Indian Ocean islands, Seychelles, Madagascar, Comoros and those offshore of Tanzania and Mozambique, plus many thousands of miles of coastline. We have inland waterways. We have jungles, forests, vast plains and deserts. All prey to the viciousness of global warming.

The SADC’s climate change report quotes an academic paper by Rahab and Proudhomme that from 2002 “there has been a rise in temperatures at twice the global average.”

According to the SADC, “A Climate Change Strategy is in place to guide the implementation of the Climate Change Programme over a Fifteen-year period (2015 – 2030). The plan is innovative in terms of food security, preserving and expanding carbon sinks (which play a major role in stabilising the global climate) and tackling problems in urban areas that cause global warming like high energy consumption, poor waste management systems and inefficient transport networks.

Out of the region’s fifteen member countries, South Africa is the biggest culprit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recently said, “We need to act with urgency and ambition to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and undertake a transition to a low-carbon economy.”

This is a big ask for the region’s economic powerhouse with entrenched mining interests, an abundance of coal and a huge fleet of coal-fired power stations.

Recently, Mining and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe said South Africa must systematically manage its transition away from coal-fired power generation and not rush a switch to renewable energy sources.

“I am not saying coal forever… I am saying let’s manage our transition step by step rather than being emotional. We are not a developed economy, we don’t have all alternative sources.”

Angola has some of the most ambitious targets for transition to low-carbon development in Africa. The country committed to reducing up to 14% of its greenhouse gas emissions – commentators have met this with scepticism.
Mozambique, not – as yet – a significant carbon emitter, has potential, through its vast natural gas resources, to provide the wherewithal to heat the planet in a big way.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo – a least-developed country, has committed to a 17% reduction by 2030 in emissions. The DRC has the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest – a major carbon sink.

Other SADC countries that suffer from climate change but do very little to cause it are Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Madagascar, which is currently suffering from a climate-induced famine; Malawi, Tanzania, Namibia and Zambia.

While talking up the need to cut emissions, Zambia’s neighbour Zimbabwe said it would increase electricity and coal supply to the iron and steel sectors, thus adding to emissions.

Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros are all vulnerable Island economies and have a lot in common with the many other island states throughout the world and are very low carbon emitters but extremely vulnerable to climate change especially rising sea levels.

Despite all the problems emerging in the lead up to COP 26, we need to take to heart the fact that scientists and commentators worldwide are warning that COP26 must deliver a way forward that works for our planet and our people. Southern Africa and the African continent as a whole can contribute with innovation and enthusiasm by tapping into the vast potential of our youthful population.