ICTS IN SOCIAL ACTIVISM
Y. Z. Ya’u
This week the MarArthur Foundation in conjunction with the Harvard University (yes, that same Harvard that our Governors wanted to go for capacity building) and the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI) held a workshop on Enhancing Civil Society Use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in Nigeria… The aim of the workshop which held at the DBI Abuja campus was to sensitize NGOs in Nigeria of new ICTs tools that they could use to enhance the work they are doing.
There is no doubt that new media technologies are facilitating social activism and enhancing the effectiveness of civil society organizations in the work they do. Over the years there have been many successful examples of civil society organizing using ICTs to achieve great results. Some of the notable ones in this class include the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization (WTO) during its 1999 ministerial meeting, the defeat of the coup against Boris Yesin in 1991 which was foiled largely due to the civil society organizations efforts at sending out numerous emails which facilitated mobilization of opposition against the coup, the ouster of Milosovic in former Yugoslavia and more recently the demonstrations that rocked Iran following its presidential election. Of course we all remember how Obama tapped into social networking using internet to raise campaign funds and drive his presidential election campaign to the grassroots to startling success.
In Nigeria, the use of ICTs for social activism is isolated and episodic, still at its infancy, and largely driven by donor organizations and not embedded in the day to day organizing, campaign and strategic engagements of the civil society organizations. The few instances that ICTs were used purposely by civil society included the 2002 boycotts of the services of GSM companies that was organized against poor GSM services, the effort by the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI) coalition that kept bombarding members of the National Assembly with email and text messages in an attempt to get them to support the bill as well as the fight against the third term project which same productive use of both internet and mobile phone.
In the main however, most civil society organizations in Nigeria use the internet only to send and receive email and hardly use the mobile technology beyond making calls and sending text messages as reminders. A few have attempted to use the internet to promote their organizational visibility while still fewer have attempted to use it as a platform for both education and advocacy.
Unlike in some African countries such as Uganda, South Africa, etc where civil society organizations are harnessing the potentials of mobile technology in their work, here in Nigeria they are yet to seize the potentials of this technology. In Uganda for example Text to Change, a civil society organization sends SMS text to the population to improve awareness of HIV Aids treatment and prevention. It has resulted in a high level of people turning up for testing. Similarly in Rwanda, TRACNet, a mobile phone-based system that allows tracking the use of anti-AIDS drugs through text messaging is being successfully used with good results. South Africa has developed the SIMpill, which is a SIM card attached to a prescription bottle is used to remind patients to take their medication.
Why is it that our civil society organizations are yet to leverage this technology even as we have extensive history of the use of broadcast technology for public enlightenment and advocacy? Still it is ironic that Nigeria which has one of the world’s fastest growth rates of mobile phone penetration is far behind in the realization of the full potentials of mobile technology as a tool for social work.
Part of the explanation for this paradox lies in the peculiarity of the ICT industry in the country. Nigeria has one of the least reliable GSM services while at the same time we have comparatively high tariffs. Such high tariffs with lots of user frustration discourage people from experimenting and exploring the full range of what they could get from their service providers. We are content to put up with repeated failed and dropped calls and undelivered text messages. How do you hope to run an effective text-based campaign if you are not sure that the message are being delivered? This is besides the high cost of doing so.
There is also the fact that unlike in those other African country, telecommunication companies in Nigeria hardly partner with civil society organizations to support social causes. In fact in Nigeria telecommunication companies do not channel their cooperate social responsibility funds into technology initiatives that would as a matter of fact add value to their business but rather look for where media visibility would quickly be reaped. Thus they go so sports and supporting politicians in their constituency projects, the latter no doubt to ensure that their infractions of the laws are hardly given a nod. Without such partners, it would be difficult to do the necessary exploration and experimentation that would lead to the creative use of ICTs for socials activism.
That the telecommunication companies do not channel part of the social cooperate responsibility to technology causes may itself be partly due to the funding mental framework of most the civil society organizations in Nigeria. For many, they think of funding only from foreign donor organizations and not about building partnerships with various stakeholders that can contribute different inputs (not necessary money) to a project.
Whatever the case, this conference would have provided the civil society organizations not only with information and experiences on the use of ICTs for social activism but also the necessary space for them to strategize on how they would leverage new media technologies in their work. If any thing, it should spur them to join the advocacy to have holistic, participatory and inclusive review of the National Information Technology Policy which has been going on for the past six or so months within the circles of government bureaucracy and IT professionals. The pervasiveness and the centrality of ICTs in the shaping and making of today’s world is such that we can not leave discussion and decision making on its policy framework to only a few people. It is time that civil society and other stakeholders contest the content and directions of this important policy.