Facing challenges old and new... focussing on APC's priorities
KALANGALA, UGANDA, 21 January 2006
Natasha Primo is chair of APC, the Association for Progressive Communications, which one publication  described as being founded by a team "clued in to the potential power of ICTs at a time when many of us still thought of computers as glorified typewriters". Primo is also the executive director of the South Africa-based Women’sNet.
Primo has long been associated with gender activism and activism in general. Formerly in academia, her teachings focussed on gender and development. She describes herself as someone who trained as a "(city and regional) planner but who never practised". Primo has earlier worked in research, and also taught at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa.
At the backdrop of Africa Source 2, an event meant to promote free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) in the not-for-profit community and of which APC was a content partner, APCNews editor Frederick Noronha caught up with Primo. This chat was over a simple breakfast, laid out in a hall with walls of bamboo. On the periphery of the room were networked computers, which needed to be protected hurriedly from the unseasonal rains. Primo shared plans and priorities of the organisation, and her own group too.
Q: After taking over as APC’s chair very recently, what do you see as the upcoming priorities?
For five years, upto 2008, it’s about building capacity around ICT policy and advocacy. There’s also [the issue of] building capacity about the strategic use of ICTs. The third big programme is the APC’s women’s programme.
Within each, there’s a set of priorities. In strategic use, for instance, FOSS is one of the major ones, even though it hasn’t moved as far as we wanted to. Chris [Nicol of Pangea in Barcelona, who became part of APC in 1995] has passed away [after a year’s battle with cancer], and he was the person who had pushed the FOSS agenda forward. He undertook so many tasks… some are waiting to be completed.
The other priority is wireless networking or alternative access. Some workshops have happened. We had two in Africa, another two are planned in francophone and anglophone west Africa, and another in Latin America. There are some funds available and plans for organising workshops in South Asia.
In the policy area, one of the major activities is the development of thematic and regional ICT portals. Like Genderit.org, the ICT & Gender analysis portal [which is linked to the APC website www.apc.org], also a Latin American ICT portal.
The portals have been used to generate, capture, and share information around ICT developments, in the regions. These were also used to develop partnerships, specially in the WSIS process, at the regional level.
The next step is the development of a number of national ICT portals.
So, there’s a kind of a refocussing to the national level, and building capacity at different places. That’s really for member [organisations] to take up. There are some funds within APC to take up the processes.
There has also been a concern about members understanding enough of the issues to feed into the development of an APC position on definitions. On issues like internet governance, on interconnection costs or whatever. A number of issue papers were developed.
Q: How do you see APC shaping up, changing, or morphing over the years?
When it started APC was really a network of ISPs [internet service providers] that were focussing on the development sector. In the early ‘nineties, [groups like] SANGONeT and GreenNet were all involved in providing connectivity in ‘developing’ countries, very cheaply. That was way before commercial ISPs were actually active [in making internet access available].
As the environment for ISPs became much more competitive, and users became accustomed to a 24 hour helpdesk, it became difficult for APC members to compete within that framework. They offered a different quality of service.
So more and more of them ceased to exist, or had to completely change their core business away from providing connectivity and user support. They changed to building databases, websites, providing training and finding new areas for operation. Our members have had to re-invent themselves.
As part of that process, it also started a debate within APC about the criteria for membership. Currently, there are a lot more content-based initiatives. A lot of the new members coming in are offering either training or content-based initiatives.
A lot of the old members have shifted into developing websites using CMSs [content management systems, or
simple-to-update websites that are particularly suited for non-techies]. You’ve got kind of a convergence of old and new around the services offered.
Q: Which parts of the globe are most representative in APC’s membership?
There are far more member [organisations] in Latin America, and historically, in the Central and Eastern European countries. Now, you’re seeing more members in Africa.
It used to be that you could only have one member per country; that’s changed.
In terms of regions prioritised for developing membership, it’s Asia and South Asia (that we are now looking at). We do have some members in North America, but it’s not an area for membership development.
In terms of initiatives encouraged to seek membership, it’s broad as long as the members’ work coincides with the mission and vision of APC. Which is, using ICT for human rights and social development purposes.
Q: What are the main challenges when it comes to non-profit organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) deploying information and communication technologies (ICTs)?
One of the major challenges is that they’re not really understanding the need for communication. That’s at the core of NGOs not thinking strategically about the use of ICTs. When there’s a funding crunch, it’s an area that gets dropped first. There’s a lot of work to be done there.
In terms of free/libre and open source software advocacy, people don’t have an appreciation of the fact that there are options available. There’s so much of management activity around resource management of an NGO, except for computer resources and related issues.
I think they need to understand that this is an area where you need to be much more informed about what your choices are. That’s one area I like to stress, apart from all the philosophical issues that go with FLOSS advocacy.
Q: Tell us something about Women’sNet in South Africa…
Women’sNet was started in 1997-98, at that time as a project within SANGONeT. It was a joint project with the Commission on Gender Equality. The purpose of Women’sNet was to provide a repository around gender issues in South Africa. It really developed a kind of profile for itself in the three years, before I joined it in 2001.
Because of restructuring within SANGONeT, we asked the board about taking it out of SANGONeT and taking it up as a separate organisation. So it formally exists since 2002, but in terms of work, it goes back to 1997-98.
We really have three areas of training for women’s organisations as well as girls. Building basic skills in the use of ICT tools, by working with women’s organisations and projects is our first focus. The second area is around content development — working with text, with audio, and now also with a bit of video. Policy advocacy is the third area.
Q: And in terms of staff?
We operate with six people, including five working full-time. Whenever we need additional capacity, we buy that in, and then budget for it.
Upto date, most of the activities we’ve run we’ve fundraised for and we invite NGOs to be trained in those skills. We’ve just set up a FLOSS lab in Johannesburg, which we also want to use as an income-raising component, as part of our sustainability efforts. We’ve been wanting to develop some training courses for NGOs and we have been giving courses for free.
Q: What seems to work when it comes to deploying ICTs in non-profits, for you’ll?
When we started, we brought people to a central place to provide the training. With some projects, we go onsite. The idea is to connect them with some of the resources in their locale. So when we leave, they know there’s a place they can go to, in order to continue improving on their skills.
That’s going to be increasingly the way we operate. For instance, through government-funded telecentres. To connect with women’s organisations and telecentres, specially when it comes to technology- and migration-planning.