In November/December 2000 I worked in Kiev, Ukraine for the United Nations mission on the strategic re-launch of the mission website as a portal, whilst also advising the UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative Douglas Gardner on communications strategy. It was an extraordinary experience on many levels. It was a time when the Internet was fast evolving and required quick thinking and an ability to innovate; it was also a key moment in Ukraine’s history.
But despite those dangers and clear threats from the government of the time, there was a flourishing and inventive Internet and digital economy. The magazine Internet UA (whose editor I enjoyed meeting) gave a great overview of the scene in Ukraine and its creativity. Just as now, the creation of Internet stars who can exploit the medium (in this case sexy videos: a very large online market today) was driving viewers and subscribers. But there was also a vibrant online news media, blogging, commerce and gaming presence as well.
According to ain.ua, the Ukrainian digital economy today is ” … ‘local’ only just figuratively speaking. Ukrainian startups are initially focused on international markets. Product companies are included into international industry ratings. Outsourcing works with clients from all over the world. Global players enter Ukrainian market, opening R&D offices, acquiring and investing into local companies. There are no boundaries.”
It is easy to take digital freedoms for granted now but there was great resistance at the time and, unlike today, many governments were openly hostile to digital technology, online communications and e-commerce.
The UN itself was evolving and embracing the communications and design revolution being driven by digital change. This was the first “dot.com” boom, which had begun in 1997. I had played a key role in pioneering online content for Mongolia (1997-1999) and could bring this experience to Ukraine. In particular, I launched an award-winning web portal for the UN Mongolia mission in 1997 (www.un-mongolia.mn) and also the country’s first web magazine, Ger.
Key content created and launched on the UN Ukraine portal included critical information on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine, UN Ukraine’s first online magazine to explore perceptions of volunteering and NGOs in the post-communist period, and content preparing for the visit of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, by showing how Ukraine was engaging with global development priorities, for example the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and bringing together UN agencies and entities into a cohesive web and “One UN” experience.
The power of the Internet and the digital economy to engage people, especially the young, despite living in a country with significant political repression of free speech and even physical intimidation and murder, stuck with me. This work also contributed to laying the foundations for Ukraine’s growing freedoms and greater engagement with Europe.
Good ideas are plentiful, but how to fund life-improving projects has always been a thorny issue. Judging how effective a project is can also be fraught with debate and contention. Over the past two decades, the number of NGOs in the global South has exploded (http://lboro.ac.uk/gawc/rb/rb144.html). The best of them offer the local knowledge and understanding required to make development gains. But unlike NGOs in the North, many lack the powerful fundraising capabilities of the big global NGO brands.
An exciting new initiative based in Germany, but already featuring hundreds of projects from across the South, is using the power of the internet to directly connect projects and donors.
Joana Breidenbach, an anthropologist, author and co-founder of betterplace.org (www.betterplace.org), says NGOs are emerging in India and other countries of the South to challenge the big Northern global NGOs.
“Why wouldn’t you want to donate to these Southern NGOs? There are more entrepreneurs and local approaches which are better.
“Betterplace gives local institutions a platform to express themselves.”
Started in 2007, betterplace is an online marketplace for projects to raise funds. It is free, and it passes on 100 percent of the money raised on the platform to the projects. The foundation that runs betterplace supports its overheads by offering additional services that people can pay for if they wish. It works in a way similar to the online marketplace eBay (http://www.ebay.com): NGOs post their project, set up an account, blog about their achievements and successes and needs, and receive donations direct to their bank account when they come in.
Breidenbach points out up to a third of any NGO’s income is spent on fundraising. In Germany, that represents more than Euro 1.3 billion out of over Euro 4 billion in private donations – money that could have gone directly into the hands of the people needing help.
With betterplace, donators can surf through the projects and pick the one they want. Already, more than 100 large corporations trawl through betterplace seeking projects to fund to meet their corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_social_responsibility).
“I find it very exciting to introduce a good and innovative NGO to a corporate sponsor,” Breidenbach said.
Breidenbach says betterplace’s ultimate goal is “to transfer the donation market online.” It hopes to change the rules in donation and charity in the same way blogs and the search engine Google changed the way people publish and search for information.
“This provides better transparency, feedback,” Breidenbach said. “Now (with betterplace) donors and organizations can cut out the middlemen. A lot of established organizations do not like this too much.”
Over the past decade, new concepts like social entrepreneurs and venture philanthropy have emerged to straddle the delicate line between social good and private profit. Betterplace joins this wave of new thinking about how to do development better.
In the 20 months since betterplace went online more than 1,500 projects have joined. They are now averaging between 20 to 35 new projects joining every week.
Betterplace is a simple open-plan office on the top floor of a Berlin warehouse beside the city’s Spree river. The small team (http://www.betterplace.org/about_us/team) work on laptop computers. A blackboard on the wall details in bright colours a running tally of the projects that have joined.
Breidenbach gives the example of a mother in Cameroon who is using betterplace to raise the school fees for her children. The mother blogs about the children’s progress and has been able to raise the fees for a year and a half.
“People are now directly connected to somebody in need.”
“Right now the functionality (of the website) does not allow people getting in contact publicly and we want to enable this knowledge transfer in 2010. If you want to build a well in Cameroon then you could search for the best technology and to contact other people who are doing similar projects to learn from them.”
Success on betterplace is by no means certain. “The experience of the project managers has been as varied as development work is – some have done really well, raising thousands of Euros over the website – others have received no funding at all,” Breidenbach said.
But betterplace provides tools to give the projects the best chance possible. “Projects can present their work, breaking it down in a transparent way (in order to let supporters know exactly what is needed for their realization), there are sound payment processes in place and project managers can give feedback through their project blog, supporters can download project widgets etc., all supplied free of charge.”
Breidenbach has other tips for making betterplace work for a project: post details in English when creating a profile, break down the project into much smaller, low-cost goals (few people are willing to make large donations) – this also has the advantage of receiving payments straight away when they are small. Tell a good story about the project, and try and use actual testimonials from the people affected. Blog and update regularly with photos and videos to keep people engaged. Also avoid copying and pasting text from a previous grant application.
“We have the numbers to show that projects which give regular feedback and have a lively web of trust receive more donations than others, which are not very active.”
“Don’t think you can just go on to betterplace and the money starts rolling in,” said Breidenbach.
The betterplace platform places all projects seeking funds on the same level, allowing individuals and small NGOs to compete equally with the big, branded global NGOs with their websites and sophisticated fundraising operations.
“All the big NGOs have their own websites,” continues Breidenbach. “But it is the small initiatives that often don’t have a website or know how to use Pay Pal etc. (http://www.paypal.com). We are very useful for smaller NGOs.”
“Another big advantage is that we are a real marketplace: whatever your interests (as a potential donor), you will find a project tackling this issue on the platform.”
But what about fraud and people seeing betterplace as a coin-making machine rather than a way to make the world a better place?
“We have a feeling for dodgy projects. We check the IP address. We have a number of trust mechanisms in place (and are currently working on enlarging them). Thus projects on betterplace can create trust through their good name … But we also include something which I would call network-trust: In our web of trust different kinds of stakeholders of an organization or a project have a voice and can publicly state what they think of it. Thus beneficiaries of a project can say if the project has done them good or has been counterproductive, people who have visited the project on the ground can describe what they have seen etc. … we hope to give a much denser and more varied impression of social work and give donors (a terribly badly informed group of people), the basis for a much more informed choice.
“If a contributor to a project is dissatisfied with the project’s outcome … she can either directly contact the project manager via betterplace, or openly voice her concern on the project page for other potential donors to see her views.”
For now, betterplace is still only useful to people who have access to the internet and have a bank account (necessary for the money transfers). But in the future betterplace hopes to have mobile phone interactivity and more features to expand who they can reach.
“We are also re-working our site to make it more intuitive and easier to use for people without computer skills,” Breidenbach said. “In the pipeline is also a knowledge backbone, enabling people to access knowhow about development and social innovation issues and exchange views and experiences. This will be very useful for projects in the South as so many people are working on the same issues without knowing about it. They could learn a lot from each other, without the “help” of the north.”
1) CSR Wire: This is a news service with all the latest news, reports and events and where companies announce their CSR (corporate social responsibility) programmes and how much they are contributing. A great resource for any NGO looking to make a targeted appeal for funds. Website:http://www.csrwire.com/
2) Alibaba: Alibaba.com is an online marketplace started in China but is now global. It allows businesses from all over the world to trade with each other, make deals and find funding. Website:http://www.alibaba.com/
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
In 1998 Der Spiegel’s “Kommunikation total” issue profiled the global connectivity revolution underway and being accelerated by the Internet boom of the late 1990s. It chose my picture of a satellite dish and a ger in the Gobi Desert to symbolise this historic event.
“Die Handy-Gesellschaft war erst der Anfang: Experten sehen in den Sphären des Internet einen neuen Erdteil entstehen. Hier lebt die Info-Elite, umgeben von PC, Pager, Powerbook. Die Multimedia-Industrie wird zur Schlüsselbranche des 21. Jahrhunderts – mit gravierenden Folgen für die Gesellschaft.”
The world has changed considerably since then; and so has Mongolia. The digital revolution has rolled across the planet, the attacks of 9/11 unleashed a wave of violence and wars, and Mongolia even became the fastest-growing economy in the world a few years ago (2012). But back when this book was researched, Mongolia was just coming out of decades of isolation within the Soviet orbit under Communism, and the country experienced in the 1990s “one of the biggest peacetime economic collapses ever” (Mongolia’s Economic Reforms: Background, Content and Prospects, Richard Pomfret, University of Adelaide, 1994).
Two trends came together at the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s: the digital revolution and the mapping of the human genome. Both have given birth to whole new industries. Read more here: The Dawn Of The Genetics Revolution | 2001 – 2003
A Mongolian information technology company founded by a woman has shown a way to thrive in the country’s often-chaotic economic environment. With the global economic crisis moving into its third year, Intec’s strategies to survive and thrive offer lessons for other IT start-ups in the South.
While the global economy’s prospects are still uncertain, on the positive side, many believe the best place to be is in emerging economies like Mongolia, with some foreseeing healthy growth for the next 20 to 30 years. Mongolia’s information technology entrepreneurs are looking to prove this is the case. The country has made great strides in improving e-government – jumping from 82nd place to 53rd in the UN e-government survey 2010 (http://www2.unpan.org/egovkb/global_reports/10report.htm) – and is now aiming to become an Asian software and IT services outsourcing powerhouse.
A Northeast Asian nation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongolia) sandwiched between Russia and fast-growing China, Mongolia grapples with the combination of a large territory, a small population (2,641,216) and limited transport infrastructure connecting it to its neighbours. Historically, it is a nomadic nation with a strong animal herding tradition. But during the Communist period, it industrialized and became more urban. After the collapse of Communism at the beginning of the 1990s, the country experienced a terrible economic and social crisis, with rapidly rising poverty rates and high unemployment.
Despite its infrastructure obstacles, Mongolia has been able to develop a lively information technology sector, often with the assistance of the United Nations. During the late 1990s, as the internet revolution exploded, the UN led on supporting infrastructure, skills development, innovation and legislation.
Information technology consulting and services company Intec (www.itconsulting.mn) , founded in 2004, has been able to thrive through the global economy’s ups and downs by identifying an under-serviced niche as a consulting, research and training company. Intec now has five full-time staff and works with a broad network of Mongolian and international consultants.
As is often the case with new businesses, Intec initially found that many doors were closed to start-up enterprises.
“The major challenges which I faced were to make people understand about the consulting services,” said Intec’s founder, Lkhagvasuren Ariunaa. “The consulting services concept was new to Mongolia and Mongolians at that time and not many organizations were willing to work with consulting services. The international and donor organizations were keen to work with consulting services companies; however, they were requiring companies to have a list of successfully implemented projects, which was difficult for a new starter like Intec.
“For example, registering with the Asian Development Bank consulting services database required companies to be operational for at least three years. So, we got registered with ADB consulting services database only in 2008. Meanwhile, personal connections and communication skills helped to find jobs and opportunities for Intec.”
Ariunaa had worked for the Soros Foundation (http://www.soros.org/) but it closed its offices in Mongolia in 2004. Faced with unemployment, Ariunaa went about seeing what she could do next: a dilemma many people face in today’s economy.
“It took me about eight months to develop a business plan and directions of operation of the company. I started in a big room at the national information technology park building with one table, chair and computer.
“It has been quite challenging years for bringing a company to the market and finding niches for us. We have franchised the Indian Aptech WorldWide Training center (http://www.aptech-worldwide.com) in Mongolia – may be one of the few franchising businesses in Mongolia. Currently that center is now a separate entity/company and it has over 20 plus faculty staff and over 300 students.”
Ariunaa had been active in the sector for over 10 years, but while knowing many of the players and organizations, she spent time researching what niche Intec could fill in the marketplace.
“Looking at the ICT market, there were quite a number of internet service providers, mobile phone operators, a few companies started developing software applications, and services etc. However, there were only two to three consulting companies in the ICT sector which to my knowledge at that time were providing consulting services, and still there was a room for Intec.”
Intec then focused on three areas: consulting services, training and skills, and research. Intec found they were pioneering a new concept in Mongolia.
Intec’s first contract was a job with the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin in the United States to organize a three week course for American students to learn about the digital divide in Mongolia. But the global economic crisis hit Mongolia hard in 2009.
“It was challenging to survive and continue working the same way,” Ariunaa said. “There were few ICT-related jobs in Mongolia at that time, and one of our major clients left Mongolia and we had to find other clients in the market.
“One of the ways of approaching this was that we were not asking for fees, instead we would have a barter agreement – we will deliver them services and they will provide some services for us. For the company itself, we needed to find ways of financing and covering costs for renting of premises, paying salaries for staff on time, paying taxes and other expenses.”
The environment in Mongolia is being helped by the Information and Communications Technology and Post Authority (ICTPA) of Mongolia (http://www.ictpa.gov.mn) , which has been driving forward an e-Mongolia master plan. With 16 objectives, it ambitiously seeks to place Mongolia in the top five of Asian IT nations, competing with South Korea, Singapore, Japan and China.
Ariunaa believes Mongolia has many competitive advantages. “Mongolia is known for a high-literacy rate and math-oriented training and education, and ICT specialists are targeting to become a software outsourcing country for other countries. Another advantage of Mongolians is that they can easily learn other languages: we are fluent in Russian, English, Japanese, Korean, German and we believe that with these two major advantages, we will be able to do a good job with outsourcing of software development.”
While men still dominate the ICT sector in Mongolia, Ariunaa has not found being a woman a disadvantage. “In Mongolia, as gender specialists say, there is a reverse gender situation. Women are educated, well-recognized and well-respected. There were situations, when I was the only women participant in the meeting with about 20 men. But I never felt somewhat discriminated or mis-treated and I think that’s the overall situation towards gender in Mongolia.”
Intec’s success working with Aptech WorldWide Training’s franchising contract brought many advantages for a start-up. “It’s a faster way to do things, and you don’t have to re-invent the wheel.”
As a Mongolian company, Intec has found it best to play to its local strengths. “National companies have knowledge, expertise and experience of local situations, know players and understand about legal, regulatory matters. … partnership or cooperation are one of the means of cooperating with big global players.”
Intec’s success is also down to Ariunaa’s enthusiasm: “It’s fun and I love doing it – just usually do not have enough time!”
3) Afrinnovator: Is about telling the stories of African start-ups, African innovation, African made technology, African tech entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs. Their mission is to ‘Put Africa on the Map’ by covering these kinds of stories from all over Africa. As their website says, “if we don’t tell our own story, who will tell it for us?” Website:http://afrinnovator.com