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?”