One of the greatest blessings of my life was the time I spent as a member of the IT crew with the international nonprofit organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). I was fortunate enough to support great deeds and much-needed assistance while stationed in France and majestic Africa.
I'll take Kampala over Paris any day
Working with nonprofits and NGOs is an exciting and unique experience. You get to make friends who teach you lessons from all walks of life and backgrounds in addition to the rewarding aspect of helping your fellow man. As an Information Systems and IT supervisor; my role was to sustain communication between MSF HQ and field teams in remote areas by setting up and maintaining networks.
There is no doubt that advances in digital technologies have alleviated accessibility and connectivity issues for residents in remote regions, however, challenges to reliable communication and networking still exist.
For example; access to computer equipment, unreliable electricity, low or poor connectivity and low bandwidth all present pervasive constraints to international NGOs (INGOs).
Unfortunately, IT projects tend to be expensive burdens and/or failures most times due to poor budget and expertise allocation. From my direct experience; I realized that there are 3 reasons that cause this sad state of IT projects and departments in the NGO sector.
1. High Turnover
Positions at NGOs and nonprofits are usually short-lived (a monthly routine actually) due to a variety of reasons such as the sudden termination of a mission in one region or relocating the mission crew to another region. This forces the nonprofit to recruit and train new crew members constantly to better fit the needs of the new mission.
Another reason is the standard practice by larger and international NGOs to swap key mission managers every other year as a long-term strategy to discourage fraudulent behaviour.
Of course, the problem here is the fact that the constant reallocation of managers and the high turnover rate of team members means that each decision-making manager on the field team will require a considerable amount of time to adapt and understand the reality of the mission requirements on the ground.
You can imagine the coordination and logistics nightmare when untested managers make decisions based on incomplete or non-existent knowledge regarding the IT infrastructure they need to support the mission objectives.
In such environments; IT suffers considerably and becomes an expensive burden on the NGO. Unlike the field medical aspects of the mission which are strictly managed by governance guidelines; there is no particular rulebook that guides an IT professional on how to approach the IT aspect of these missions.
The catch here is what happens to the IT project when the original project manager and maintainer leaves? Depending on the skill and background (being versed in a different tool or tech) of his/her successor; usually, they restart the entire IT project from scratch as it's the easiest approach. The cycle goes on with no solid foundation to build on for sustainability that addresses turnover issues.
From my direct experience, this vicious cycle results in a massive waste of time, effort and resources. Not to mention, of course, the disastrous impact of poor documentation that will naturally manifest as a result of this confusion.
2. Mission Priorities
Imagine being the person in charge of logistics allocated a budget of 5,000$. How would you spend that budget?
Between security, transportation, proper waste management; purchasing needed servers and IT requirements tend to usually be last on the budget priorities checklist.
Due to the lack of typically expensive centralized tools and the ongoing need to manually support systems and devices (apps, computers, phones and etc.) in the mission.
The mission's IT team will be lucky to receive 100$ from that budget.
Even if NGO headquarters understand the issues facing field offices, the decentralized structure of the NGO can cause logistical challenges when trying to implement improved communication systems; making the attempt to accurately budget for relevant IT requirements even more difficult.
The lack of budget commitment has contributed directly to persistent major IT challenges such as data security risks, mobility solutions, sustaining best practices, capacity building, outdated equipment and systems.
Fortunately though, with the advances made in technologies and software; the price of their implementation and maintenance has declined. International NGOs should have no problems allocating the appropriate resources to avoid the ongoing unnecessary & expensive mistakes that occur as a result of inappropriate IT infrastructure and systems.
3. Strict Data Protection Rules
International NGOs are typically headquartered in GDPR observant countries. These strict data protection rules must also be observed by their field teams operating in developing countries that may have different or no data protection rules.
This sticky and tight situation that the field team finds themselves in forces them to resort to pen and paper methods in a bid to avoid breaching GDPR rules and/or protect the data they need from cybersecurity threats where they operate.
A massive headache when you weigh the consequences of breaking laws and ending up paying a hefty fine that may amount to 10 million euros in the case of GDPR while attempting to avoid the risk of lack of cybersecurity or breaking local data protection rules and rights.
You cannot expect to have a sustained standard of data protection for both headquarters AND team members operating in the field of developing countries especially that much of the field team lack access to the same level of technology as those based in the NGO headquarters.
I am sure that there are other challenges that face NGOs regarding information and communication technology and it is expected that innovative solutions such as Google’s Project Loon and SES will help eliminate much of those obstacles. However; we must address urgent needs that can be solved by implementing existing solutions.
At Vardot, we passionately pursue opportunities to be involved with nonprofits in a bid to show how IT can enhance goodwill and welfare via effective digital experiences. We understand the essential needs that an NGO must satisfy in an increasingly digital world to ensure sustained success.
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