Rethinking Community Connectivity: As the Pandemic Wears On, NGOs Turn to Technology for Information Dissemination and Behaviour Change
Editor’s note: This article is part of NextBillion’s series “Recovery 2021,” which explores how businesses, development initiatives and the communities they serve in low- and middle-income countries are building greater resilience for a post-pandemic future. For news updates and analysis, virtual events, and links to resources related to the COVID-19 crisis, check out our coronavirus resource page.
Fostering social change and influencing human behaviour is a long, arduous process. The communities you want to impact might be remote. The lack of phone or internet connectivity might exacerbate the challenges of reaching them. The added difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may cause you to throw in the towel and focus on more attainable goals.
But efforts to effect social change through information access remain essential, as evidence suggests that the pervasive lack of this access presents a major obstacle to the betterment of poor and marginalised communities. This can be seen when communities remain unaware of the government programs intended to serve them, when their access to information is curtailed by non-functioning schools, or – as is the case with COVID-19 – when people do not have accurate information about how to keep themselves safe. Despite the challenges, there’s a growing movement of NGOs, governments and social enterprises that are focused on improving people’s lives through information dissemination and behaviour change.
Digital vs. Physical Approaches to Information Access and Behaviour Change
Among these organisations is WeUnlearn, an NGO that aims to build emotional resilience and foster gender equity among children and adolescents by using research-backed gamification principles, a proprietary chatbot and other tools. In April 2021, over the course of a Stanford design challenge that lasted about four weeks, they brought a shift of 10-15% in the gender attitudes of children aged 14-18, from low-income families in Delhi. Their behaviour change efforts focused on 1,200 adolescents, and happened in a relatively short period of time. And since their intervention was delivered digitally, it would be quite easy to magnify that impact to 12,000 or 12 million lives.
WeUnLearn’s success highlights the advantages of using digital tools and platforms to boost information dissemination and behaviour change initiatives. However, these initiatives have historically failed to fully leverage the power of digital technology and growing internet access. For example, this 2019 report by UNNATI and the E.U. highlights several methods NGOs have used to overcome the barriers to information access in vulnerable communities. Most of these involve physical interventions, such as setting up resource centers, distributing posters, booklets, handouts and newsletters, and conducting other in-person campaigns. Relatively few of these examples involve digital interventions. In light of the ongoing pandemic, it’s worth asking whether these physical programs are still operating today, how they’ve adapted and how much impact they’re making.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Information and Behaviour Change Initiatives
Crises like COVID-19 can undo the impact plans and roadmaps of development-focused organisations, reducing the reach and effectiveness of their interventions. On the flip side, they can also lead to a new focus on innovation, as organisations are compelled to explore new approaches that might work when all else fails.
Many information and behaviour change NGOs have looked for alternative ways to stay connected with their communities during the pandemic – and to adapt to their shifting needs. For instance, when entire systems for healthcare awareness and services, education, and food security in India started to fail after the crisis struck, NGOs like ReapBenefit, The Apprentice Project, Saajha, Dost Education and Slam out Loud continued their programs and found dynamic ways to impact many lives. They quickly adopted digital two-way communication systems, mostly using WhatsApp, to bridge the temporarily broken links with their communities and continue offering programs that had previously been delivered primarily through in-person outreach.
Their choice of platform is significant: They reached their beneficiaries where they were at, on WhatsApp. In a country with almost 400 million active WhatsApp users – the most in the world – the channel is both readily available to NGOs and popular with their communities, enabling easy engagement. Establishing a connection this way didn’t require them to waste time convincing beneficiaries to adopt a new app. This connection enabled them to move forward with their programs, whether they were fostering behaviour change among adolescents, enabling students to continue their education, or linking people affected by COVID-19 with healthcare services.
But though these tools allowed these organisations to continue making a substantial impact, that impact is dwarfed by the size of the challenges facing them and their peers in the development community. The problem of broken connectivity remains, and will continue to plague our society even after the pandemic is over. Many more organisations will need to adopt digital communication systems in their own unique ways, in order to bring vulnerable communities closer to the services and information they need most. But how can they best accomplish that?
How Development Organisations Can Adopt Digital Communication Channels
In answering that question, there are two important things to note about why the NGOs mentioned above are shifting to digital communication channels.
First, the way vulnerable communities interact with both service providers and the broader world is changing. Access to mobile phones is increasing and data is getting cheaper in emerging economies – in fact, the cost of data in India is the lowest in the world. In light of those changes, the way development programs are positioned and delivered to beneficiaries is also changing, as they recognize that the operational management needs and costs of in-person activities is significantly larger than that of digital alternatives. Even after the pandemic, reaching beneficiaries on their phones will continue to be much more cost-effective. To achieve sustainable last-mile connectivity, NGOs will need to embrace new technologies.
So how can organisations adopt new tools and technologies for effective connectivity with their communities? A lot goes into this, but aligning their information dissemination processes and budgets with these new technologies is an essential first step. This requires a team that is aware of emerging tools and well-versed with technology, allowing them to design new programs that leverage available tech capability rather than trying to create custom solutions, which can present many more hurdles. Off-the-shelf solutions can be particularly advantageous when an organisation needs to quickly deploy a new technology to launch or sustain a program, or when it needs to incorporate various additional components like impact measurement tools. In those cases, adopting ready-to-use software stacks deployed as services can not only simplify implementation, it can also open up invaluable community support and learning opportunities via user forums.
Does that mean organisations should quickly adopt any new technology that surfaces? No – they should observe their existing protocols to identify the solutions that suit them best. In the case of the NGOs mentioned above, they opted for a solution that built upon the ready availability of cheap mobiles phones and data to reach communities where they were at.
We designed Glific to make that process easier for development organisations, minimizing the challenges of adapting their programs to a digital environment. To that end, we enable users to convert their posters, pamphlets, skits and demonstrations to images, audio, videos and documents that can be consumed over simple mobile devices via WhatsApp (with the possibility of integrating with other channels such as Telegram and Signal). Their workshops and surveys can be conducted over two-way chat, and their grievance redressal systems can be established much faster and with less operational overhead. Due to our special focus on the social sector, Glific has been positioned to keep the costs of running these programs to a minimum. Our open source platform is being developed with philanthropic grants, but participating NGOs incur a monthly charge for hosting and set-up.
The quick adoption of innovative channels of communication can improve lives in vulnerable communities at a large scale. But this doesn’t require complete organisational change: NGOs can accomplish it with a team of just one or two people focused on exploring, implementing, measuring and iterating on their programs using new communication channels. That process begins when an organisation boldly questions its current information dissemination paradigms: Are they still effective or is there an opportunity for change? As the pandemic continues and mobile access grows, those are questions many NGOs will find it increasingly important to answer.
Photo courtesy of Glific.