A recent article on the Text to Change website shows a scenario where SMS and social media proved to be very helpful tools in saving the life of a Dutch woman who was involved in a serious accident in Kampala, Uganda. The woman sustained severe injuries, fractures, and a serious loss of blood. When the woman was transferred to a hospital, she learned that she was in dire need of a blood transfusion of O negative, a rare blood type. Text to Change and the Dutch embassy in Kampala quickly responded by sending out an emergency SMS to the Dutch community with a request for a blood donation. The emergency request was also posted on various social networking websites.
Two years ago, few would have imagined that social media would turn out to be such a useful tool for civil society in a country like Uganda—where people not only have limited access to technology but also have limited skills to take advantage of what is now commonly known as “the people’s media.” We know that social media has revolutionized the way people communicate and network in developed countries, but the same is true for developing countries. Despite limited access to technology and poor connectivity, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as popular spaces for young people in Uganda.
But social media is not just for young people looking for dates. Many local and international NGOs operating in Uganda are using popular online platforms to advance their work.
The following are a few examples of Ugandan organizations that are effectively using online tools.
Text to Change, mentioned above, is based in the Netherlands and Uganda and partners with local organizations across Africa and South America. The success of Text to Change’s programs in Uganda—focused on promoting HIV prevention and care as well as providing information on malaria, family planning, reproductive health, and child abuse—paved the way for Text to Change’s emerging presence across Africa and other developing regions. Text to Change is driven by the belief that mobile phones are becoming more affordable and accessible to low-income populations and among young people.
Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) is one of the pioneers in the use of information and communications technology to promote women’s rights in Uganda. WOUGNET established its online presence over time while conducting trainings for other NGOs in Uganda to learn how to leverage the power of technology to ease sharing and access to information. WOUGNET established and moderates one of the most active mailing lists in Uganda. The mailing list provides a platform for civil society and NGOs to share ideas, opportunities, and any other relevant information with subscribers. WOUGNET also uses Facebook and Twitter to share information and mobilize people for activities. WOUGNET has organized several SMS campaigns to raise awareness about causes such as the 16 Days of Activism against Violence Against Women. Based on this experience, WOUGNET has also promoted the use of mobile phones (SMS) for advocacy.
The Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS-Uganda) has used Ushahidi on several occasions to monitor and map access to essential medicines and medicine stock-outs. It also uses mobile phones to share and collect information from health workers based in rural Uganda (check out www.pillcheck.crowdmaps.com).
International organizations operating in Uganda have more resources and so tend to make a greater impact with technology tools than some of the local organizations. UNICEF’s U-Report, for example, has become a very popular mobile SMS campaign. U-Report is a free SMS-based system that allows young Ugandans to speak out on what's happening in communities across the country, and work together with other community leaders for positive change. With over 60,000 mobile subscribers (youth from different parts of the country), U-Report is the biggest and most active SMS campaign in Uganda.
Women of Kireka is a local women’s cooperative formed with the aim of creating jobs for women. The women live in Kireka and work in a stone quarry. In the quarry, the women earn little and work very hard. Women of Kireka has trained the women on how to make paper beads out of old magazine paper. The beads are then beautifully woven into jewelry and sold in local and international markets. Social media has been a great tool for the cooperative in terms of finding markets mainly in the western world. The social media presence has also helped the cooperative gain reasonable recognition in Uganda.
Mobile Monday Kampala (MoMoKla) was formed two years ago as the Ugandan Chapter of Mobile Monday Global, a network of mobile industry professionals and startups in 100 cities around the world. Over the past two years MoMoKla has organized events and invited speakers, developers, and key policymakers to talk about the role of mobile technology in development.
Of course, civil society groups are also using social media to facilitate political debates. The “Walk to Work campaign” and the Save Mabira Campaign gained support on social media sites from people within and outside Uganda. Facebook pages played a major role in terms of promoting the campaigns. People with mobile phones and digital cameras uploaded photos of the police and army harassing citizens who were peacefully protesting. In a radical move, the government attempted to block Facebook and Twitter following this campaign. A sure sign that there is power in social media.
NGOs that are already using social media still face a number of challenges. Many organizations will admit that they don’t actually know how to effectively use these tools to communicate or engage their audience. Often, NGOs put the organization’s reputation before anything else. Social media gives users rights to comment and share their opinions and information as they wish. This can sound threatening to many NGOs. I’m typically asked by groups: How can social media cause impact? How do we moderate the language/ content posted by the general public on our social networking pages?
Once they start using social media there is also a danger that organizations then forget about the other (bigger) portion of their target group which doesn’t have access to the internet. NGOs have to constantly be reminded that social media is just a set of tools which one can use to share information.
Yet, as the examples listed above show, social media and other information technology tools are here to stay. Organizations need to learn how to adapt these tools to their own needs, or they risk being left in the dark.