NetHope: How NGOs Are Using Tech For Change

The Big Read, powered by Vodafone. David Goodman of NetHope talks to Dublin Commissioner for Startups Niamh Bushnell.

NetHope members from across the globe recently gathered in Dublin for a NetHope Europe chapter meeting, attended by their recently appointed CIO-In-Residence David Goodman.

But what, exactly, is NetHope? As good a place as any to begin the conversation…

David-Goodman Dublin-Globe

Tell me about NetHope…
NetHope is this consortium of the IT departments of all the big international NGOs which enables humanitarian organizations to better serve the developing world through smarter use of technology. We help our member organizations collaborate, innovate, and leverage the full potential of information and communications technology to support their causes. When I was CIO at the IRC (International Rescue Committee), I got very involved in NetHope almost immediately upon arrival eight years ago. So, while my position within NetHope is new, I’ve been involved with them for a long time now.

And what brought the members of NetHope to Dublin?
There are forty-three members of NetHope now, it’s a US non-profit but because this is an international sector, obviously, we have members all over the world. A couple of years back the European members decided that they wanted to meet on a more regular basis, so they started to get together and have these NetHope Europe chapter meetings, which are really about sharing with each other. These chapter meetings are rotated between various hosts, and because two of our more active members worldwide are Concern – their CIO Vincent Richardson is Chair and Director of NetHope – and Trocaire, we’ve had two meetings in the greater Dublin area now. A key component of these meetings is the information sharing sessions, where each member lead gets up for about ten minutes, and gives a presentation on what they’re up to within their organization. It could be an overview of their current strategy, they might be in the middle of major system implementation… It gives each member a flavour of what the other is doing.

Because everybody has the same problems…
That’s really the core of NetHope, this approach of sharing your strategy, your approaches and your solutions: ‘How did you solve your digital asset management challenge?’ The big one is connectivity; we all struggle with connectivity in the field, and we probably will forever. But let’s all collaborate, and try solve some of those problems together. That way we’re learning from each other, we’re sharing best practices, sharing knowledge and information. And that’s what NetHope is really about. If you’re sitting there struggling with things by yourself, and suddenly you come someplace where everyone has similar challenges, and ideas to solve them – it’s kind of mind-blowing (laughs). If you think of being a CIO of an NGO as working with one hand tied behind your back, then NetHope is the extra hand.

In Dublin, we had a very interesting presentation from the Innovation Value Institute, which is housed at Maynooth University. They have an IT capability maturity framework, where through a fairly exhaustive and rigorous process you can get an idea of where your organization is on their maturity framework. It was fascinating.

Wow. What has changed in the NGO tech world over the last few years? Is it more the Tech or changes in the needs of people across the world that influences your work?
There are a couple of angles on that. One is that technology has just infused our lives in so many crazy ways, both good and bad. I would say that when I first got to the IRC eight years ago, the sense was that you’ve got three critical operational departments: finance, HR and IT. If you think about trying to rank the importance of the three, it kind of goes in that order – you can’t really do what we do without money, that drives it all, and you can’t do what we do without people, but we can sort of get by without technology… and that’s not true anymore. The fact is that technology has become much more central to the way that NGOs deliver their services to their beneficiaries.

That’s more reflective of how the world is going…
Exactly. The other, more interesting thing is that the refugee profile is changing. When we think of a refugee from years ago, we think of farmers, agrarians, the displaced and malnourished. What we’re seeing now are middle-class Syrians, people who look like us, and they run out of Syria with just their shirt on their back and their cell phones. The way we deliver services, the interventions we’ve designed, for refugees as well as host communities, need to use technology, because that’s what they use. These refugees from Syria want things on their smart phones. One of the things the IRC did was build a system that would allow refugees to find local services by using their smartphones. ‘My wife is pregnant, my son needs medical care…’ They can use this. It’s like Yelp, essentially – we even called it ‘RescueYelp’ internally. The folks who were refugees ten years ago didn’t have smart phones. So, it’s a combination of the way the world is leveraging technology more and more, and our beneficiaries being a lot more connected than they used to be.

Looking at that from a business perspective, do competitive concerns play at all into the non-profit world?
There are not many cases where the technology is a competitive advantage. Now, we have to think about technology in the NGO world in two different categories: one is the more traditional back office stuff: your ERP system, your finance system, HR system, grants management, supply chain… The things that run the engine of your agency. Then you’ve got what we call ICT4D, which is when we use technology specifically for programme work – the D is for development. So that ‘RescueYelp’ system, that’s ICT4D, where we use technology for intervention in a programme itself – our beneficiaries are interacting with a system, or our staff are using technology to deliver the programme. Concern Worldwide for example is doing some great and innovative work. They’re providing a mobile phone app to their frontline health workers in Ghana, and they’ve also digitised the collection of data from the field via tablets so they can monitor and evaluate the impact of programmes more effectively. These are great examples of ICT4D.

This world is exploding. And the fact is we all work together. Quite frequently, there’s a consortium: there’s a lead agency working with a bunch of sub agencies. The IRC will take the lead and Save The Children will sub, or vice versa – that happens all the time. Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a competitive nature to some of what we do, but really in the IT realm it doesn’t come up.

Right now, what is the thing you’re most excited about, technology-wise, for the sector?
Mobile is having the most significant impact, the ability to access information in your hand. The Cloud is exciting, but in many cases you can’t get to the cloud. You go to Africa, you look up, and the sky is cloudless, right? (laughs) Bandwidth issues are still hugely significant in that area. The connectivity situation is still quite serious. The other thing that’s interesting is how much entrepreneurial stuff is going on, even in that context. You go to Kenya and Rwanda, countries that are very much still part of the developing world, and there are technology entrepreneurs coming out of there – companies like Ushahidi, for example – that are doing really interesting things that are incredibly exciting. Ultimately, people will always find a way to make things work.

What can startups do, if anything, for NGOs?
In the US, there’s a thing called a B Corp which is interesting; startups saying ‘We have this product idea, or we have this business idea, but frankly we’d like to infuse our organisation with some social benefit beyond the work that we do…’ And so I think NGOs can be a vehicle for that. We can be their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) vehicle. Sure, they need to be relentlessly focussed on their product and their mission, but we’re an interesting test bed for their products. If it works in our context, it’ll work anywhere. And if a startup is interested in accessing the next series of markets, which is the developing world, then we’re already there. We’ve been working these countries for decades. There a lot that we can bring to the relationship.

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