More than half of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in South Africa say that information and communications technology has had a major impact on their ability to advance human rights in this country. While this figure has barely shifted in the past two years, NGOs are now poised to explore the cutting edge of mobile technology and social networking in pursuit of their causes.

These are among the key findings of a report entitled, State of ICT in South African NGOs 2009, released by market research organisation World Wide Worx and NGO technology facilitator SANGONeT.
The study was sponsored by Microsoft and the National Development Agency (NDA), which made it possible for World Wide Worx to interview decision-makers at 800 NGOs spread across the country, and representing organisations of all sizes and interest groups.
While a seemingly high 56% say IT has had a major impact on their ability to advance human rights, this figure has barely changed from the 54% response in the previous study conducted in 2007.
“It means NGOs are leveraging technology, but not nearly achieving its potential,” says David Barnard, executive director of SANGONeT.
However, all this may change, as the study shows that for the first time NGO decision-makers are becoming adept at cutting edge tools like mobile applications and social networking services. Mostly, these are being used in their personal capacity, with half of all respondents using local social networking services, but only 6% of them using it in pursuit of the goals of their organisations.
"This suggests that, because they are adept at using social networks and the like, they face far less of a learning curve in embracing these tools in pursuit of their organisations’ causes,” Steven Ambrose, MD of WWW Strategy and lead consultant on the project. “In the past, people have tended to learn how to use the Internet from exposure at work, and then taken that into their personal lives. We are seeing the reverse process at work here.”
The survey also reveals that NGOs are rapidly embracing advanced functions of cellphones, with exactly half of them using the calendar and organiser functions of phones for organisational use, versus only 24% using those on a personal level. Similarly, 48% of NGO decision-makers are using the Internet browsers on their phones to access information for their organisations, while only 25% of them are using mobile browsers in a personal capacity.
Conversely, 51% have embraced instant messaging on the phone for personal use, while only 16% use it for their organisations. A slightly larger proportion, 20%, use instant messaging on computers, with a further 43% indicating that they intend to embrace this option.
“The data shows that NGOs still see the new forms of communication offered by social networks and instant messaging as personal tools rather than organisational, but are aware of their capabilities,” says Ambrose. “This highlights the potential of these tools once their role can be more clearly defined and promoted.”
Where the value to the organisation is clear, uptake of advanced applications is clearly under way. Already a quarter of NGOs are using the short code system offered by cellular networks as a fundraising tool, and 28% are using cellphones to collect information in the field. A quarter of NGOs are also using custom applications, such as medication maintenance systems on phones for HIV or TB patients.
“One of the key issues highlighted by the survey is that only 39% of NGOs have a technology plan in place,” says Barnard. “This is the first step in making technology work for an organisation, and it’s a step that most NGOs must urgently take. The findings of the study will hopefully encourage more action in this regard.”