Centre for Internet & Society

The digital revolution has helped make NGOs and civil society more influential, independent and transparent, writes Nishant Shah in this article published in the Indian Express on Sunday, May 15, 2011.

Power to the People

The rise and spread of internet and digital technologies has invigorated the voluntary sector in the country, granting them better mobility, access to resources and wider visibility through digital networks. With the rise of the internet, augmented by easy access, civil society needs to claim its stake in the World Wide Web. Visibility and presence have become the buzzwords. There is a concentrated effort to become a Simple, Moral, Accountable, Responsible and Transparent (SMART) organisation that doesn’t operate in remote silos but reaches out to an audience and a resource base.

While NGOs in the more developed countries have taken to digital technologies more easily, there is no doubt that the digital revolution has finally come to the civil society in India and it is offering unprecedented opportunities for social change and political participation. From the Bell Bajao campaign, which brought to the fore domestic violence in the urban middle class, to the recent demonstrations for Anna Hazare, we see many examples of the ways in which civil society and NGOs can still mobilise support from the public.

What has also been interesting is how collectives rather than registered organisations have played an important role in the public delivery of such campaigns.

Here is a look at three ways in which engagement with digital technologies, has led to new models of making public interventions and processes of initiating change for civil society collectives and NGOs.

Birds of a Feather

With the networked effect of the digital technologies, something as simple as building a Facebook page puts out the concerns and draws the attention and resources of a larger population. NGOs need no longer confine themselves to finding people in immediate environments and are extending their support base to large online networks. The Bangalore-based Blank Noise Project that started off as a public art intervention by Jasmeen Patheja has now emerged as a large volunteer-based network that harnesses the power of peer-to-peer networks to mobilise young urban dwellers, to talk about gender, safety and urban space. Not yet a formal NGO, it uses blogs, Twitter, Facebook, mailing lists etc. in order to bring people together for public interventions as well as digital dissemination. With more than 4,000 volunteers running the project in different cities, BNP proves the power of the Web to find “people like us” for a common cause. 

Beyond Patronage

With the kind of outreach and visibility afforded by the internet, NGOs are turning to public support and individual contributions to carry out their work. Take Kickstarter, for example — a site where any NGO wanting to launch a creative project, can put up a project description and a budget. They can then invite people from around the world to “pledge” money by swiping credit cards, beginning with a contribution of $5. If, within a given time-span, enough people pledge enough money to cover the project’s budget, the organisation receives the money through electronic transfers. They become, thus, accountable not to individual donors or private development agencies. Instead, they become transparent and responsible towards the larger public who, as stakeholders and supporters can now endorse, amplify and track the activities of the organisation. 

Transparency Unlimited

With the rise of information technologies, citizens have started asking for more details about organisations that seek to represent them in different sectors. It has become necessary for NGOs to become accountable at two levels — one is at the level of financial integrity and the second is at the level of public responsibility. The consortium Credibility Alliance is one example by which the voluntary sector can disclose certain minimum information to its public in order to build transparent governance structures. NGOs have also become more sensitive to the politics of representation and how to involve communities they work with, in their processes rather than becoming self-appointed vanguards. The field of collaboration has opened up and we see the rise of networks rather than individual players in the field.

Digital and internet technologies amplify, augment and enhance the existing processes. In the voluntary sector, like almost any other walk of life, many of these practices already exist. What these systems of the digital age have done is provide new ways by which the everyday citizen can participate and contribute to the processes of change.

Read the original published by the Indian Express here

Filed under:
The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of their individual authors. Unless the opposite is explicitly stated, or unless the opposite may be reasonably inferred, CIS does not subscribe to these views and opinions which belong to their individual authors. CIS does not accept any responsibility, legal or otherwise, for the views and opinions of these individual authors. For an official statement from CIS on a particular issue, please contact us directly.