How Technology Barriers Slow Down Nonprofit Innovation In the Global South

Social entrepreneur Nejeed Kassam argues the nonprofit sector has been left behind, still using obsolete technology and sticking to old ways of doing things. He identifies three steps that could help break down technology barriers, especially in the Global South.

If you’d grown up in our home, you’d have probably heard the phrase kila mtu, the Swahili word for everyone. My parents, from a young age, taught me the power and importance of inclusivity, pluralism, and accessibility.

Having been blessed with the opportunity to spend decades in the nonprofit sector, and now working everyday to build technology for the sector, I’ve gained a further appreciation for the value of accessibility—especially when it comes to technology.

The reality is, unfortunately, the game is not fair for small nonprofits and grassroots initiatives. These smaller organizations—the organizations that I have grown up with—are faced with obstacles to truly embracing technology, from prohibitive pricing to a complicated learning curve, which act as a roadblock to true impact and community transformation.

Heartbreakingly, this reality is amplified further when you examine the Global South, and the life-changing work being done by small organizations there.

The global need for accessible technology

In every industry, there has been a digital transformation that has shifted the way institutions interact with the world; it has occurred in education, medicine, and even public policy. But the nonprofit sector seems to have been left behind—still using obsolete technology, still sticking to our old ways of doing things. We continue to resist change by relying on the crutch that our workforce is overworked and under-resourced.

Nobody is arguing: both of those things are true; we are overworked and under resourced. But, that doesn’t mean that the sector should accept our inefficient status quo.

Nonprofits of every size need amazing technology, but smaller organizations need this technology even more. Tech can help save money (of which there is little to go around) and time (of which there is never enough).

Innovation in the Global South

This reality is especially noticeable when you examine the our sector’s work in the Global South … of course with a few key differences. Organizations in the Global South do a significant proportion of their work on-the-ground. Because of the nature of the work, these organizations are almost never in offices with access to desktop computers and traditional software.

On the ground, “old world” technology isn’t empowering—it’s burdensome. However, what can help empower these organizations is cloud-based mobile technology, again with a few small, but important, differences.

Internet connectivity is often spotty in remote service delivery areas; there is significant research on the challenges (technological and practical) of “last mile” impact work. Yet, to deliver effective support, the importance of accurate information and data cannot be underscored. Further, information is collected as things happen, and it is best practise to do this in ‘real time,’ as things are happening. Without appropriate technology, people too often still rely on pen and paper, or technology that’s not part of a greater system. This leads to inefficiency and inaccuracies—and important data being lost in transcription.

To increase efficiency and empower on-the-ground impact, technology companies need to innovate to make this process easier and more accurate. In order to democratize the nonprofit technology space, a few things have to happen:

  1. Companies need to understand how international and local development actually works. Initiatives in the Global South, happen on the ground. Solutions must have a strong mobile component that doesn’t rely on a desktop counterpart. Organizations may never have time to sit down in front of a computer.
  2. Technology companies need to understand the technical limitations of nonprofits in the Global South. Software is great, but it means nothing if the people who need it can’t access it.
  3. Companies need to figure out how to monetize this tech, appropriately. This, I admit, is one of the most difficult problems to solve. But there are creative ways to make access to technology a reality. Enlisting the help of granting organizations or building scale through local capacity represent some of the ways we can accomplish this.

With innovation, hard work and creativity, I am excited to see what else the nonprofit technology community can come up with to change the world and give access to those who need it.

Meet leaders who are overcoming technology barriers:
How Hewlett Helped Fight Ebola In West Africa
Offering Tech Pro Bono? A Foundation Shares Best Practices

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