“How do I help?” – Introducing Nabuur

You’re a well-meaning, internet-connected, comparatively wealthy and well-educated person living in the developed world. (And even if you’re not, bear with me for a moment.) You’d like to find a way to help people in the developing world in a more meaningful way than giving money to the Red Cross. What can you do?

It’s a surprisingly difficult problem. There’s been excellent work done on finding ways to give or lend money more effectively. Global Giving helps donors find projects in the developing world that need funding and enable communication between donors and recipients. Kiva uses a similar model, but focuses on microlending to developing world entrepreneurs, rather than on grants.

But what if you want to use your skills rather than your money? I spent a while thinking about this problem when friends and I founded Geekcorps, a non-profit group that sent geeky volunteers to developing nations for months at a time to work with local technology companies and projects. We turned down the vast majority of people who applied and sent very few volunteers. It was a good experience for most of the volunteers and the partners, but it was extremely expensive and hard to scale – it’s not a huge surprise that the NGO that took over the project in 2004 has had a difficult time keeping it alive and vibrant.

Nabuur, a new project based in the Netherlands (and funded by some of the kind folks who fund Global Voices) are trying basically the polar opposite model of what we tried with Geekcorps. They invite everyone to volunteer, don’t put anyone on airplanes and focus on what well-meaning volunteers can do over the web.

The video above tells the story of a Dutch mother who’s able to assist an organization in Uganda that supports AIDS orphans in translating their website. She explains that she’s able to assist when she’s got free time, and that all the work takes place online, two factors that are hugely appealing when you’re looking for volunteer participation (as we discovered when we recruited people to help with the Katrina Peoplefinder project.)

In my experience, the hard part of all developing world volunteer projects is defining tasks that are helpful for the beneficiaries and possible for a volunteer to carry out. Geekcorps volunteer assignments worked well when we found companies that could say, “Send us an expert who can teach us how to migrate from Access to MySQL”, and really badly when we worked with companies who said, “Can you send us someone who’ll make our business better?”

Nabuur seems to understand this and has organized their system around small, achievable tasks. I became part of the community today and immediately started looking for opportunities to help communities in Ghana. One of the communities in need of help is in Buduburum, a refugee camp near Accra that I knew well in 1994, as a friend of mine lived there. A project to build a village computer center is broken up into discrete tasks: “Find out how much it costs to ship 30 computers from the UK to Ghana”, “Search for background information and pictures of the refugees in Buduburam”. Those aren’t easy tasks, but they are the sort of things that people can do from around the world, armed with Google, some curiosity and a willingness to ask questions… and they’re already pitching in, researching and offering answers.

To make any of these projects work, you need strong partners on the ground. Kiva and Global Giving both rely on partners to document and monitor the projects that participants give or lend to. And Nabuur is relying on partners to identify worthy projects and break them into these bite-sized chunks. It will be interesting to see how this model scales – it’s hard to find people who can write good project descriptions and keep up regular interactions with their volunteers around the world. But the model seems like the right one to me, and I’m thrilled to see a new attempt to solve an old and thorny problem: “How do I help?”

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8 Responses to “How do I help?” – Introducing Nabuur

  1. This is such a cool idea – mining the cognitive surplus Shirky talks about. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Henok says:

    It is true we can help more by sharing time, knowledge and idea rather than money.

  3. Rolf Kleef says:

    Hi Ethan, having been involved in moving Nabuur to their new drupal-based platform, it’s nice to see you’ve signed up :-)

    Interestingly, their are quite a few “neighbours” (Nabuur users) who did make the effort of visiting “their village”, it sure is even more rewarding if you’ve been to the community you’re helping online. In that sense, I’d be curious to see how the “polar opposites” as you call them can be joined in one “global ecosystem”.

    For instance: Nabuur is partnering with Fairground Sessions, who organise volunteer trips to projects in developing countries. If such a project also has a home at Nabuur, it’s relatively easy to extend the experience and impact beyond “just” the trip, and help connect a local community to the rest of the world. Such connections give the usually very strong local people better access to knowledge and resources, to be effective leaders in realising improvements in their communities.

    Perhaps the due diligence that is happening in setting up a project at Nabuur could also deliver the kind of concrete assignments that Geekcorps is looking for, and a Geekcorps volunteer mission would then be embedded in a larger “virtual neighbourhood” to provide ongoing support and networking opportunities for the on-the-ground community.

    Scaling up is then creating a fabric out of Nabuur, Geekcorps, Fairground Sessions, and the many many other official and informal initiatives that all offer pieces of the puzzle, doing the bits they’re good at.

    Kind regards, Rolf.

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  5. Saheli says:

    You always pull these amazing things out of your hat, Ethan. It’s more than a good idea—I’m sure I’ve heard this idea batted around and immediately batted down more than a few times. It’s a great achievement that someone actually made it real. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Sri says:

    To be the devil’s advocate: I joined Nabuur sometime last year and followed the progress of a few projects (“villages”) over the course of some months. Those that I saw make any significant progress had dedicated facilitators who not only rallied the “neighbours”, but also raised funds towards the implementation of the project themselves.

    I’m currently based in a village in Uganda. Internet access has been available for the last few months (free of charge to many in the community and at subsidised rate to the rest) and we have been discussing whether to add any of the ongoing community-based initiatives to Nabuur. So far, it is not clear that any of the initiatives can benefit. Often the knowledge and expertise needed are available locally or it needs someone to have a deep knowledge of the community in order to share effectively. Where information is needed, it seems better to train someone in the village to use Google. (After all, being part of Nabuur requires an Internet connection.)

    Having said that, the existing platform, is clearly useful in creating connections between people who might not otherwise connect. For me, the question remains, how to turn the good intentions in to results.

  7. Joost Bonsen says:

    Ethan: Thanks for the FYI. Great to hear about this and your own comparison w/ Geekcorps. I blogged about your post — http://maximizingprogress.blogspot.com/2008/08/nabuur-volunteering-from-behind-your-pc.html — Sincerely, –Joost

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