The development and use of Information Communication Tools (ICTs) for social change has already seen an impressive evolution. Recent technological developments have made the Internet a viable and effective means of collating and disseminating information on civil society issues. Civil society organisations (CSOs) and other information providers are increasingly disseminating information electronically; hardware and software costs are decreasing; increasing numbers of CSOs are starting to use ...read more
The development and use of Information Communication Tools (ICTs) for social change has already seen an impressive evolution. Recent technological developments have made the Internet a viable and effective means of collating and disseminating information on civil society issues. Civil society organisations (CSOs) and other information providers are increasingly disseminating information electronically; hardware and software costs are decreasing; increasing numbers of CSOs are starting to use the Internet, and there has been rapid growth in the number and quality of Internet access providers.
During the past few years Southern African CSOs have experienced a number of critical challenges which continue to impact on their work in support of development issues in the region, including changes in the socio-political environment, the availability of development funding and the ability of organisations to adapt to change in general.
Embracing and integrating ICTs as a tool for communication, exchange of information and other operational and organisational requirements therefore represents huge opportunities, as well as challenges, in the process of shaping, transforming and consolidating the role and contribution of CSOs.
This situation represents the operational environment of the Southern African Non-Governmental Organisation (SANGONeT), a very unique organisation which is the only Southern African CSO dedicated to providing ICT services to the local CSO sector.
SANGONeT, previously known as WorkNet, has been providing networking, information and training services to Southern African civil society organisations (CSOs) since 1987. It is an association incorporated under Section 21 of the Companies Act in South Africa and was established to facilitate communication and information exchange between trade unions, social justice organisations and the international community during the apartheid era.
The emergence of the World Wide Web coincided with the transformation of the South African political landscape during the early 1990s, resulting in much freer access to communication tools than before. In this changed environment, SANGONeT operated as a full ISP with a holistic approach to the provision of services. While dial-up, e-mail, online announcement services and mailing lists formed the core SANGONeT services, website development and training generated the bulk of its revenue.
Despite initial technical challenges, SANGONeT has grown and gained a wealth of experience in working with users with little computer literacy. As a result, SANGONeT has developed an increasing understanding of the information needs and requirements of Southern African CSOs. It views ICTs as a tool that could build the capacity of users and the communities they serve, and therefore emphasises the need to integrate a variety of information-related tasks through the use of ICTs. SANGONeT works closely with targeted communities and institutions. Each group’s needs are addressed in a tailored way. Internet tools are crafted to match their application requirements, be it discussion forums for lobbying and advocacy purposes, or gathering information to assist communities in gaining access to information resources, or popularising the work of an organisation through the World Wide Web.
A survey conducted on SANGONeT clients in July 1998 found that most clients had been using e-mail and the World Wide Web for approximately 2-3 years. The biggest obstacle to expanded ICT usage could be attributed to a common skepticism amongst CSOs of the benefits of e-mail and web-based usage, while some CSOs are also unaware of the potential for ICTs to enhance and contribute to their everyday functioning.
However, SANGONeT has also identified a growing number of organisations which have capitalised on the benefits of using ICTs in their work. An integral part of SANGONeT’s approach is to introduce development activists and practitioners to new technologies and to raise awareness about how ICTs could enhance organisations’ effectiveness, thereby promoting a mind shift in the way communication and information management is approached in an organisation. These include trade unionists, CSO activists, development workers, librarians, women and media workers in South Africa and other parts of Africa.
SANGONeT’s range of ICT services include web publishing and hosting, database development, network management and IT training. SANGONeT's training courses are structured to accommodate both those who are exploring the possibility of using the Internet and those who already have ICTs in place, but are not using it to its full potential. SANGONeT's training activities are therefore aimed at two interrelated levels, namely skills training and the promotion of a mind shift in the way communication and information management is approached in an organisation.
As part of its focus on ICT service provision and capacity-building, SANGONeT, in conjunction with the Commission on Gender Equality (CGE), launched Women’sNet in 1998, a project aimed to empower South African women to use information and communication technologies more effectively in their struggle towards advancing women's equality. Women'sNet seeks to make technology accessible and less intimidating to women, provide gender-sensitive training and support, link people working in related projects and help them find tools and resources on the Internet, create a platform for women's voices and issues and help distribute information in formats accessible to women not directly linked to the Internet.
During January 2000 SANGONeT decided to restructure its core business from being an access and information provider to being an information facilitator. As a result, SANGONeT's new mission is as follows: "A facilitator in the effective and empowering use of information communication technology (ICT) tools by development and social justice actors in Africa. SANGONeT exists with the purpose of sharing information, building capacity, linking people and organisations through the use of ICTs in Africa."
As part of its new focus SANGONeT will cease to provide dial-up services, with the emphasis instead on the development of various new information products and services. This will include Internet portals on general and specific development issues of relevance to Southern African CSOs. An important dimension of the focus on information products and services will be to complement SANGONeT’s other products and services, and vice versa, thus providing both existing and new clients with more integrated ICT solutions.
SANGONeT is not a membership organisation, but as the only CSO ICT service provider and with a vast number of CSO clients, it also has the responsibility to reflect the views and positions of CSOs on ICT-related issues. As a result, it is an active roleplayer in various South African initiatives in this regard, as well as on an international level through its membership of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).
During the past year SANGONeT’s work has been recognised through a number of local and international awards. In July 2000, Performance Management Review (PMR) awarded SANGONeT the Silver Arrow Award for excellence as a South African Internet service provider. Websites designed by SANGONeT have also won several awards, including the ‘Best of the web’ award and LabourStart pick-of-the-week for the SADTU website, the iNet Bronze Award and the International Association of Web Masters & Designers’ Golden Award, as well as inclusion on Ananzi’s Top 10 Websites of the Week for the SANGONeT corporate website. Women’sNet received an award for ‘Innovative use of New Media’ at the Highway Africa conference during September 2000 in Grahamstown.
Reflecting on the future, some of the main challenges facing SANGONeT are to continue to develop ICT products and services relevant to the needs of the Southern African CSO sector, including the introduction and application of new technologies, as well as to expand SANGONeT’s regional identity and impact.