dustry in more countries. Working in
Africa and India, I have personally met
many talented developers and small
software companies committed to
working with NGOs. More opportunities and resources must be provided by
governments and funding agencies to
encourage them to serve the nonprofit
sector. This could help bootstrap IT service businesses in countries with limited access to outside markets. Enabling
these relationships requires a better
social network connecting NGOs, soft-ware-training institutes, fledgling software companies, and funding sources,
including (social) venture capital.
Better software-development tools
would also help, particularly for mobile
applications. Microsoft’s .NET framework is a well-integrated, well-documented, full-featured proprietary development platform for which there is
significant infrastructure worldwide for
developer training and support. However, many NGOs are unwilling to pay
license fees for software and uncomfortable using pirated software and may
oppose being tied to a particular operating system. As a result, there is a notable
push by NGOs toward open source. For
mobile applications, more openness
and standardization are sorely needed,
as is better support for cross-platform
development. Recent efforts by Apple,
Google, and Nokia to provide more
open development platforms seem to
be a step in the right direction.
In terms of application software,
neither the shrink-wrap nor the pro-prietary-software-plus-services model
has worked for rural NGOs. Providing
a suite of useful open source applications could be an effective alternative,
potentially having a cascading positive
effect on local economic development.
Each open source application could
create a number of opportunities for
local IT companies to serve NGOs, each
in turn serving a number of local communities and individuals. This is the
kind of public good that governments
and donors should provide.
Several open source applications
have been developed for NGOs, including for managing microfinance programs ( www.mifos.org) and maintaining electronic health records (www.
openmrs.org). This trend allows local
software providers to focus on adding
value, including customization, local-
ization, installation, maintenance, and
support. Improvements and additions
to the code can later be fed back to the
main branch, lowering the barrier to
entry for future implementers. Working on such globally distributed projects requires effective collaboration-and-governance tools that work across
time zones and cultures.
Finally, the global research and
development community must address the challenges of computing
in the rural developing world, one of
the last frontiers of computing adoption. Researchers working in this field
have already provided novel insights
into shared computing, interfaces for
semiliterate users, and long-distance
networking technologies for reaching
14, 15, 16
To illustrate these concepts, I describe
two systems—Self-Help MIS and Digital ICS—my students and I built in collaboration with rural NGOs and CBOs.
These systems demonstrate how information technology is being used to automate existing processes and provide
new opportunities for development.
While a formal long-term evaluation is
pending, initial results have been positive and generated additional demand
from other civil society organizations.
(For more, please see
Self-Help MIS. Self-help groups, or
SHGs, are semi-independent microfinance groups located throughout rural and peri-urban India. They usually
consist of 15 to 20 members, mostly
women (see Figure 2). Group members
save money during regular group meetings, rotating the accumulated capital
in the form of loans that are repaid with
interest, increasing the group’s corpus. When the total amount becomes
too much for the SHG to manage, it is
disbursed back to the group members.
The cycle then starts again, sometimes
with the reshuffling of members among
groups. SHGs are promoted by NGOs,
banks, farmer groups, individuals, and
government agencies in India. Beside
the immediate benefit of providing
access to financial services, SHGs are
also a mechanism for organizing other
community development activities.
Working with SHGs is attractive for
local banks, as they lessen the need to
build physical branch offices in remote
areas and thereby reduce the cost of
providing financial services. However,
banks often have no way to address SHG
quality and history, making it difficult
to determine the risks associated with
various products and services (such as
the lending of money). Due to limited
literacy and education, many SHGs
keep inconsistent and/or incomplete
records. Many need the help of literate people, sometimes the field staff of
a local NGO, to maintain their records
figure 2: field staff capturing data from a self-help-group meeting.