By Roberto Elissalde
The emergence and growth of three APC member organizations in the countries of the Global South ,– in South Africa, the Czech Republic and Colombia – are compared and contrasted in this study by Roberto Elissalde.
At the end of the eighties, the hundreds of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fighting for human rights in the wider sense multiplied until they formed a diaspora of small stars. Due to the constraints imposed by time and space, the stars could only be seen one by one and the reader could be forgiven for thinking that in time each star in its isolation would burn out and disappear. However, the beginning of the new decade brought with it the creation of groups, associations, networks, and eventually, networks of networks, which were able to strengthen civil society and give a voice to new social agents, both on a regional and a world level. This process crystallised gradually in the rise of the constellation of networks that form APC. When we assess the impact of the previous decade, it is important to remember how some of those pioneering groups arose.
A time for pioneers
It could be said that the need to work in networks preceded several of the present APC nodes, and it was a combination of chance and will which brought them together.
Julián Casasbuenas remembers that while working as a consultant to various NGOs in Bogotá, Colombia in 1985, he was invited to participate in a meeting of electronic communication networks in Lima, Peru. As he prepared his presentation, he discovered that three Colombian universities (The Andes, Eafit, and the Del Valle) had set up a communications network exclusively for postgraduate teachers and students. Another group, this time of amateur radio enthusiasts, had set up a network using radio-modems, which they used privately to exchange email. The novelty of the use of modems, which could be used to send messages between people in different countries, was causing a sensation.
To get an idea of the distance between then and now, we need to realise that those modems had an adaptor that was placed over the handset of the telephone and which connected it to the computer. Communications were at 300 bauds (10 bauds are approximately one text character per second, meaning 300 bauds transmitted 30 characters per second), whereas today’s modems transmit data at 57,600 bauds or higher.
Michael Polman, a Dutch computer specialist who was director of the Antenna Foundation in Holland, explained to those present at the Peru meeting the possibilities of email for NGOs and for their work, emphasising the importance that they could have in the democratisation of information. His intervention lit the fuse, and within five years Casasbuenas had managed to bring together some thirty NGOs with international links that were interested in using electronic communications. The first group connected via Interdoc, a network which used the X-25 protocol and the services of the European-based commercial email network GeoNet (later Poptel).
Whilst it was a great leap forward, it was still paradoxical that two Colombian organisations should have to connect via London to communicate with each other. Aldato, a local network had managed to set up a system of email, conferences and forums, and was able to make internal connections, but by 1991, this set-up was totally insufficient. Besides, in addition to exchanging information and coordinating activities, the Colombian NGOs, in the middle of the “Viva la Ciudadanía” (Long live citizenship) campaign, needed their own space. As a result of these experiences, in 1992 the creation of a node on the model of Antenna was proposed. “I began technical tests to see if it could be done using a personal computer with no hard disk and only 3.5 and 5.5 inch diskette capacity,” recalls Casasbuenas. “The first Colnodo prototype began on that computer with a 3.5 inch diskette and a 1,200 baud external modem!”
It was also the need to get organised in an efficient way that led the antinuclear activists in the former Czechoslovakia to form a network. During the final years of the Communist regime, the government was immersed in a programme of building nuclear power stations on the Soviet model. Following the “Velvet Revolution”, citizens’ protests found a more receptive ear, and the new government demanded higher security standards for the power stations. Organisations such as DUHA (which later became Friends of the Earth, Czechoslovakia), Greenpeace, and other local groups, such as Mothers of South Bohemia, considered that the new government’s demands were insufficient, and that the citizens did not know of the real dangers of nuclear energy. In 1989, Econnect began to provide an email service based on Fidonet technology , and quickly became the medium of exchange and coordination amongst those organisations that were trying to provide elements of analysis for civil society.
Czech environmentalists used the Internet to organise more effectively after the Velvet RevolutionPhoto courtesy: Econnect
Email became the main tool for publicising campaigns directed at the United States and Europe, and the Econnect site still hosts the main sources of information about the nuclear threat in the Czech Republic .
Just as turbulent was the beginning of the South African node, originally called WorkNet (today SANGONeT). In 1987, Michael Polman reappears in Zimbabwe to talk about the use of modems and email as a way of organising civil society groups. WorkNet was an NGO founded earlier in 1987 to facilitate labour unions fighting against the apartheid system of those days. Taffy Adler, one of the activists who had strong links with the British union movement, was in contact with groups in Manchester in the United Kingdom that used email to strengthen their work in social action networks.
With the personal and technical contribution of Simone Shall, who worked for the Workplace Information Group (WIG), the group began to gel. In 1988, steps were taken to widen the network of people and organisations linked to WorkNet, bringing in the librarians Noel Stott, of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Lydia Levin, from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, Anriette Esterhuysen, from the South African Council of Churches and who had met Michael Polman in 1987, and Sibongele Ngubane, from the Durban Ecumenical Centre (and the only one in the team with any actual knowledge of computers). Paul Boulle, a pioneer in the use of computers among NGOs, joined the group and played a supportive role in upgrading the technology used by WorkNet.
Trade unions and churches were some of the few South African organisations that could express their views publicly without suffering instant repression in the late eighties, which explains the composition of the initial group and its social importance during those years. WorkNet became the network of activists in a period when big-name Internet Service Providers (ISPs) did not exist.
From different perspectives and in different social realities, the three nodes – Econnect, Colnodo and WorkNet (SANGONeT) – continued to go about their work, guided by the same mission: to offer organisations the possibility of bringing together their knowledge and efforts, and to offer society the chance to get informed and take action.
Czechoslovakia abandoned Communism (1989) and shortly after divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia (1992). The extreme political violence in Colombia at the end of the decade of the eighties and at the beginning of the nineties gave way to certain forms of dialogue, which allowed civil society to make its voice heard. The South African people’s struggles against apartheid reached a climax in the first few years of the nineties, and in 1994 finally opened the way to the first free, multi-ethnic elections. The forms acquired by the movements in each of these societies were various, but in every one the nodes provided support for communication, organisation and the coordination of efforts. These transformations not only modified society, but also occurred at the same time as technological changes that in turn changed the APC nodes.
In 1991 WorkNet began to use UNIX on its server and soon installed a Fidonet service. This change allowed WorkNet to give connectivity to users in neighbouring countries, following the example of GreenNet, the APC node in London, and becoming a real gateway for the entry and output of information in the deep south of Africa . In 1992, WorkNet became SANGONeT and joined APC in 1993. Its main objective was to serve as a bridge between social organisations and assist a large mass of users with very little computing knowledge. In 1994, the year of the elections, SANGONeT became the first Internet service provider (ISP) in South Africa. Within in minutes of Nelson Mandela making his inaugural speech to South Africa’s first democratically elected parliament SANGONeT distributed the full text of the speech online.
Although the node provided full advisory services to both the public and private sector, helping civil society organisations, fighting poverty and underdevelopment continued to be the main focus of its work.
At the beginning of the nineties, in the midst of digitising their databases, many Colombian NGOs listened to Colnodo’s voice, urging them to work cooperatively to prevent duplication of efforts and resources. The result was the creation in 1993 of an impressive resource collection, which can still be consulted today . That same year, Colnodo joined APC and opened the doors to the world of Internet. In a conference for technical network coordinators, organised by the UN’s Sustainable Development Network, Colnodo discovered the possibilities of the Linux operating system, which they decided to adopt for the Colnodo server. By 1996, the node was fully integrated into the Internet.
The growth and development of Econnect was also stimulated by the organisational needs of civil society. With the first Fidonet email service in Central Europe, Econnect became a pivotal focal point for NGOs working locally in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria and Poland. The campaigns in favour of democratisation and public participation in the region used the services of Econnect. With the passing of time and the popularisation of Internet, Econnect’s tasks also underwent changes. From being an Internet access provider it moved on to become a consultant for the strategic development of computing communication tools.
Throughout the world, organisations that were pioneers in providing access to the Internet, when political activism was the rule and changing society the objective, had to adapt to a new era following the Internet explosion of the late 1990s. Competitive commercial packages and free Internet access (in exchange for accepting publicity or other methods) as well as the popularisation of public telecentres, took users away from nodes, which had to reorient their activities and rethink their financial bases.
The main objectives of SANGONeT continue to be facilitating access to information, strengthening human and material links, and helping networks of people and organisations that use Internet to carry out their activities. Encouraging and training activists to use these means of communication is another of the tasks carried out by the node. Two projects are the organisation’s flagships: Africa Pulse is an information portal on the social and economic development of the southern African region, oriented especially towards social workers and local communities. The other is Women’sNet , a programme designed to help South African women find the gender tools necessary for social action. In the near future, SANGONeT plans to move from being a provider of access and information to becoming a facilitator of information. This will imply the development of tools that give power to social agents through the use of information and communication technologies.
The model chosen by Colnodo involves advising organisations and companies interested in having or improving their presence online, as well as offering connectivity, the creation of original web content (including database development), and a focus on fair e-commerce. Colnodo designs, adapts and develops software – always using free and open source programming options which remain in the public domain – including ground-breaking evaluation software for public telecentres. Amongst the work of note in recent years, are the Websites for Save the Children, the Luis Carlos Galán Institute, the Federation of National Popular Housing Organisations, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Econnect, the lead developer of the APC ActionApps , has chosen a similar path, offering technical solutions to other organisations, including connectivity and Local Area Networks (LANs), besides web design. Another of the main activities of the organisation is hosting and creating secure Website services for other organisations and companies that trust Econnect as a reliable service provider. On the social aspect of their work in their work for the NGO sector – the primary target of their work- Econnect offers press summary services, a fund-raising database for NGOs, and NGO sector job listings. At the same time, this widening of activities has resulted in a widening of the audience that comes into contact with the environmental and social themes which have characterised Econnect’s interest since its beginnings and which are highlighted on the pages of its vibrant Website.
After ten years of APC, its members are still contributing to changing the world, and still adapting to it. The technological and commercial changes of the last five years have altered the old balances, but the goals of members such as SANGONeT, Colnodo and Econnect are still the same today as they were at the beginning of the last decade, which speaks well for them and is a good thing for the societies in which they work.
About the author
Roberto Elissalde is a Uruguayan journalist. Previously, responsible for the International News section of the Uruguayan weekly “Brecha”, and correspondent in Paris and London, he is currently chief editor of “The World Guide”, an alternative reference to the world’s countries, produced by the Third World Institute (ITeM).
APC Annual Report 2000