By Kamiel Verwer, edited by Jim Luce
An increasingly popular approach in the world of development is working directly at the “grass roots,” co-operating with local organisations rather than going through multiple layers of mediators. I think this is a good thing in the face (and phase) of the inevitable progress of communication technology that makes it ever easier to organize life improving projects together with these local, grass roots NGOs.
However, by the time we hear of these local organisations, they are already established within their country where they have been working for a decade on average. They already have their own website, government registration (in many countries an ordeal of several years), the ability to report in an international language, physical infrastructure, and money to pay their electricity bills. Their director is already highly motivated, knowledgeable and connected with colleagues from around the world.
Of course, these organisations deserve every support they can get, but something seems missing from the picture. What about the tiny local initiatives that are not yet “linked in” and connected with the international community? They often have local knowledge and very promising ideas, yet their voices are overheard in the cacophony of global communication.
In this article, I focus on these beginning and struggling local initiatives, and explain how we can support them in the era of hyper-connectedness.
When it comes to defining these informal entities we have to be as broad as possible. Our idea -- that might sounds anathema to the development establishment -- is not only to look at already available excellence, but also to reach out to fledgling informal initiatives that need external support.
Such an initiative can be a literacy campaign, an action sensitizing the youth, an animal shelter, a vaccination campaign, local disaster prevention or relief, operating a community center, environmental protection, latrine building, teaching in a slum school, a micro-lending program, water filtration or catchment, and so on.
What we want to express is this: In iimpoverished communities, rural and urban alike, there is a lot of potential among the common people that becomes visible to institutions only when they have gone through a long and tough struggle. We believe that we should support these true grass roots initiatives more in the fragile stadium of their inception. Foreign support, in the form of media attention, moral support (yes, sometimes, it just means keeping the director from drinking), donations or voluntary professional help, potentially means the world to these projects. Of course, such initial support - like every beginning - is risky.
So why give time or money to someone you’ve never heard of, just because that person claims on the internet to be responsible for a charitable initiative? The phrase “found on the Internet” doesn’t have a good reputation, but in recent years the development of social media have turned the tide - for those already connected.
Every local initiative, everywhere on the planet, with not only access to an internet connection, but also to a savvy person who understands marketing, can easily reach out to their potential supporters, just like any company can target their very specific globally dispersed consumer base. This connectedness can lead to schools raising funds for a health center, college graduates visiting a local school and introducing sustainable technology, mid-career professionals on a sabbatical sharing their (in)valuable experience with them.
But what if initiatives don’t have these two assets? In urban slums from Nairobi to São Paulo to Mumbai or Manila, cyber cafés are a well-known phenomenon, but the smallest initiatives often don’t have the capacity to describe their initiatives professionally on the internet. And in rural areas, often there is no internet connection at all (despite rapidly increasing cell-phone coverage).
But even if our struggling grass roots initiative manages to make its voice heard, we don’t know if we can trust it. Local organisations might not have the capacity or the will to include them as they are struggling themselves. When they create their own internet website it often goes under in the vast volume of spam and scam the internet spawns. So we decide -- rightly so -- to support more established organisations.
We must change that. The enthusiasm of the voiceless poor, invested in countless initiatives unheard of, should not be wasted. Using serious social media platforms like LinkedIn, idealist.org or even couchsurfing (!) we can include them in our virtual network of trust.
A vital first step will always be a physical, perhaps unannounced, visit by a person who is already on the network. Once that person finds an initiative worthwhile and writes a positive review, chances that it actually benefits from the global interconnectedness, the donation platforms, and the independent volunteers, are far more realistic (although it will remain a struggle).
Independent Changemakers. But who scouts these invisible promising yet fragile people and their initiatives? This is the task of what we call independent changemakers. They are change makers because they often bring transformational change to a community, contributing their skills to local start-up initiatives such as micro-lending groups, community centers, schools, ecotourism initiatives, sensitizing campaigns, or human rights activists.
They are independent because they can take care of themselves and they can help out initiatives that are not well-managed -yet. That means they can have a true impact. Independent changemakers can exist because of our “flat” world. Using websites like kindmankind.net (or better ones) the chances that a skilled changemaker connects to a place where he can actually contribute that skill have exponentially increased, as have the chances that they can connect a place to funders with a specific interest in the topic or the geographical region where an initiative is active.
The term “changemaker” was introduced by Ashoka, the well-known organisation for social entrepreneurs that also runs the website www.changemakers.com. They feature magical stories from all around the world, but their selection criteria are tough. Only the best of the best will be able to become Ashoka Changemakers. We believe that in the early phase of inception, the fragile first steps towards development of an initiative where a new idea hasn’t have a chance to prove itself yet, the potential changemakers need to be interconnected on a global scale.
In particular, such a connection has to be North-South, that is between skilled people in developed countries and social entrepreneurs in developing countries. This connection cannot be only virtual - physical travel is involved.
Thus, “independent changemakers” travel to communities who need and deserve change and help responsibly. That responsibility means that 1) all efforts are essentially driven by the community and don’t create new dependencies; and 2) every effort is well documented and carried out professionally according to a feasible schedule the community itself agreed upon.
The “kindmankind.net” Platform. We have created an effective social networking platform to facilitate these exciting connections. Its vision statement reads:
A world in which tiny, struggling grass roots initiatives in poor areas get an equal chance to connect and can attract skilled, pro-active “changemakers” that support them on their path to self-sustainability.
Its Internet address is, of course, http://kindmankind.net.
The initiatives listed on this website come from an exciting diversity of sources that provide changemakers with inspiration and concrete contacts. The information is highly searchable as the site makes use of geocoding and extensive topic categorizing.
In order to expand the information base, kindmankind needs the help of many collaborators, to share the initiatives they have learned about and deem worthy of our support. Often, the contributors are so-called “solidarity travellers” who bring their skills and knowledge to regions less travelled – and document their experiences. In doing so, they can bring the deciding moment of opportunity to a struggling grass roots initiative.
Beautiful Coincidences. The concept we propose is not a panacea for development support. Rather, we want to level the playing field of interconnectedness. By doing so, we create the very possibility that a skilled professional traveling for whatever reason connects to an initiative that needs their help. A nurse from Kansas, while on vacation in Nepal, finds a struggling community clinic (not just the ones already mighty enough to launch their own website) and she sets up an “air-bridge” support of clean needles while en passant pointing out the importance of hand washing.
She knows them because another vacationer wrote about it on an internet platform that specializes in making such connections. Or a German construction worker spontaneously teaches a two-week course of an advanced technique to local builders in Tanzania -- builders that are ‘common people’ and have never heard of NGOs. He knows about this because a Kenyan pastor noticed the local builders were interested and suggested to put their “initiative” on the map on such a platform.
Unlikely? Is creating such opportunities mere opportunismm or can it be a vital resource in our quest to make the world fairer and more liveable? Let’s find out! We would love to hear from you if you have a similar story. You can send it here.
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