NGO's Network

NGO's Network

[Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Society for the Systems Sciences, Denver, Colo., July 12 to 17, 1992. Copyright (c) 1992 by the Society.]


By: Stephen R. Ruth, Ph.D., Professor of Decision Sciences, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030; and;

R. R. Ronkin, Ph.D., Volunteer, Volunteers in Technical Assistance, Arlington, VA 22209;


Electronic transmission of data over long distances, combined with the development of user networks, has become a powerful enabling technology -- and a challenging opportunity -- for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Over 100 nations now have some form of connectivity, but the poorest nations are the most poorly connected. These least connected nations represent over half of the world's population. Yet they are desperately in need of the rapid, low unit-cost information-transfer capabilities offered by this powerful and robust technology. The numerous NGOs that work in developing areas of the world have important potential roles in using these high-yield technologies for disaster relief as well as routine information transfer. They have a significant but so far largely unfulfilled opportunity to leverage this technology toward the needs of the poorest nations. This paper elaborates the scope of the data communication opportunity and gives examples of NGOs of various sizes and missions in their implementation of information technology networks. An agenda for action offers specific suggestions that can lead NGOs to obtain greater leverage from existing networks.

KEYWORDS: communications, electronic-mail, international-development, networks, NGOs, technology-transfer.

INTRODUCTION: The Proliferation of Electronic Networking

Computer Mediated Communications Systems (CMCS) exemplified by electronic mail (e-mail), on line data systems, data-base retrieval systems, etc. are well known, but their immense capacity, low unit cost and dramatic growth are not fully recognized. In developed parts of the world, CMCS are used in businesses, in universities, in primary and secondary education and in the home. The number of messages sent on CMCS globally -- often as e-mail -- is very large; the rate of increase per year is already over 30% and increasing [12]. In the United States alone the volume of traffic per month on NSFNET has increased 100-fold, from 100 million to 10 billion in only four years [3]. A global, online, database locator at McGill University served 30 inquiries per day in November 1990; by September 1991 it was serving 2,600. The appeal of these networks lies in their quick, cheap and relatively error-free connectivity among millions of sites around the world and a compelling sense of immediacy. A part of this structure has been used primarily to connect researchers. Research networks include BITNET in the United States, EARN in Europe, GULFNET in the Persian Gulf, JANET in the United Kingdom, NETNORTH in Canada, and SWIFT in Switzerland. Some of them have operated for over a decade and offer very low unit costs to their users. Internet, the giant of them all, is a global network of networks with some 770,000 multi-user nodes and an exponential growth rate.

The reasons for the low unit cost of e-mail are easy to understand. First, the major tasks of network analysis and planning are already completed. Thus, investments in software and cadres of specialists at several years. Stability of services as well as increasingly efficient system performance are common results [16]. Second, as usage increases, the large capacity of electronic channels tends to serve increasing volumes of message traffic, offering the economic advantages of scale. For example, the BITNET membership fee for a large university (usually in the range of $5,000) together with an allocation for some user services personnel may approximate $100,000 per year. Computer costs are relatively low since the minicomputer that handles the message traffic is often used for many other tasks too. If this large institution sends 5,000 messages a day, the unit cost is about one cent per message. Moreover, the saturation level of network users is growing: at Syracuse University it is over 50% and at least 4,000 professors and students have network connections.

A third reason for the relatively low cost of e-mail is that it is so far not viewed by the general public as a service that competes on the basis of usefulness with telex or fax transmission. Thus, it is not perceived as a threat to the pricing structure of those technologies. In actuality, the networks are as dependable as any other type of service. But most users of fax and telex do not consider e-mail as an equally acceptable medium of messaging. Rather, it is viewed as a contrivance, an artifact that is still under development. Studies in Latin America [17] and Eastern Europe [18] showed that e-mail services were at least one and often two orders of magnitude lower in unit cost than fax or telex, at similar levels of service. That is, sending a five-page message from Prague to New York or Santiago to New York costs perhaps $.10-$.25 compared to $5 to $15. Moreover, sending e-mail messages is relatively easy: the sender in Prague uses a few simple keyboard commands; the file is sent within seconds to New York.


Unfortunately, the spread of e-mail technology has followed the path of many other technologies -- wealthy nations are quick to utilize it and gain benefits, while poor countries must wait. Table 1 gives a summary of the levels of connectivity of nations of the world, classified according to the complexity and scope of their e-mail services [15]. We include under the heading Excellent the countries that have the capacity to use four major connectivity services: Internet, UUNET, BITNET and FidoNet. Under Good we include the nations that have two or three of four target capabilities; countries listed as Poor have only one. The category No Service includes countries that are unable to connect using the simplest modalities. About three-fourths of the countries of the world and over half of its population are characterized by poor or nonexistent services. It is not surprising that most of the countries that are poor in the context of telecommunications are also classified by the UN Human Development Report as "Low Human Development" nations [20].

Table 1: Quality of Connectivity By Nation

Type of Conectivity    Number of Countries   Aggregate Population,
                                             Billions (Percent of
Excellent                   31                  1.220 (22.4%)
Good                        28                  1.463 (26.8%)
Poor                        48                  1.662 (30.5%)
None                       125                  1.102 (20.3%)

NGOs: Many Types, Many Tasks

People know of the existence of NGOs, although they may not appreciate what NGOs do that neither government nor business seems to do as well. They vary greatly in purpose, size, and sponsorship. Many of them are known for helping the poor and unorganized to improve or take control of their lives. NGOs are numerous and uncounted: there are an estimated 11,000 in the Latin America-Caribbean region alone, most of recent origin [4]. A recent European compilation [19] shows that the NGOs specialize in agricultural issues, alternative trading, appropriate technology, arts and culture, audiovisual methods, children, cooperative movements, coordination, consumer issues, consumer unions, decentralized cooperation, development education, disabled persons, documentation... only through the letter D in the alphabet.

EXAMPLES OF NGOs: from Local to Global

The Women's Water Committee (Mukusi, Zambia) was started by a group of women who were dissatisfied with their village's only water supply: it was inconvenient to access and hazardous to health [14]. They sank dozens of boreholes and installed reliable handpumps; thousands of persons lined up to fill their buckets and plastic jerry cans. The status of women in the village has improved because they manage the new water system. Now the committee plans to improve sanitation by eliminating open garbage heaps in favor of burial pits and build improved, ventilated latrines.

The Junior Engineering and Technical Society (Alexandria, Va.) is a nonprofit, Nationwide organization for precollege students interested in engineering and technology. It sponsors student competitions, a National Engineering Aptitude Search, and engineering design contests. Its paid staff of three persons produces a newsletter for 35,000 student subscribers at some 2,200 schools and responds to 10,000 requests for career guidance each year at no charge.

CARE (New York), a global NGO, has 65 field offices in Latin America, Asia, East Africa, and West Africa. After Bangladesh's 1991 cyclone, the 1,600-member CARE staff in that country distributed food supplies to 400,000 people and 55,000 tons of wheat to 2,000,000 farmers. After the Persian Gulf War, CARE set up refugee camps at the Turkish border and provided vital supplies to 240,000 people. CARE projects feature primary health care, population and family planning, agriculture and natural resources, small economic activity development, training, food assistance, and emergency response.


Can NGOs, small and large, use electronics to break down the barriers of isolation from peers, clients, and patrons? Here are examples of how NGOs are using modern communications technology.

A woman who leads a conservation data center in Indonesia uses a PC and a modem to send critical environmental data by e-mail to The Nature Conservancy and other organizations quickly and at low cost. The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based NGO, is implementing an e-mail network which, together with its local-area network (LAN), will allow the staff to share proposals and planning documents with NGOs in other countries to make better and faster funding decisions.

SatelLife (Boston), a not-for-profit organization, distributes medical information in sub-Saharan Africa by low-Earth orbit satellite and e-mail. An international health official says, "Establishing reliable communications may be one of the most important priorities for improving health in Africa." [6] Telephone service is poor in quality and high in cost; sending a 6-page fax from Benin to Nairobi can cost $300. The Boston office communicates with its African staff through PeaceNet and FidoNet, both global, nonprofit networks, taking advantage of the dramatically lower unit costs of this service compared to more traditional methods of communication. HealthNet, the satellite-based message service, now operates in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe; countries are being added. The New England Journal of Medicine allows free electronic distribution on HealthNet of articles requested by African doctors. Electronic distribution of a medical newsletter started in March 1992 using a variety of technologies. HealthNet's clients are universities and, through them, doctors and medical societies.

Volunteers in Technical Assistance (Arlington, Va.) has pioneered the development of satellite-based packet-radio technology for remote areas of the world. VITA uses an opportunistic mix of communication methods for its own field projects. Its small-business development project in Chad (where phone service is poor) operates from two cities linked by packet radio. A FidoNet link between Arlington and the capital city of N'Djamena is planned. Elsewhere in Africa, its solar- energy project in Djibouti loads technical questions onto VITA's satellite; the questions are referred to Sandia Laboratories in New Mexico by satellite for quick response. An agricultural infrastructure project in Afghanistan is headquartered in Peshawar, Pakistan; data are being exchanged with Arlington by a low-cost, U.S.-initiated modem call, but a satellite ground station has come on line. As a service, this link will also carry UN refugee affairs messages between Geneva and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Peshawar via Arlington. Most significantly for VITA operations, all message traffic is centered on its bulletin-board system, which is freely accessible to VITA's staff and Volunteers.

Recording for the Blind (Princeton, N.J.) produces and distributes audio tapes of current textbooks for cost-free distribution to 27,000 active users, with the help of 4,800 volunteers working in 31 recording studios throughout the United States. Borrowers typically are students at the secondary, college, and professional levels. The studios use modem-to-modem communications to access the central databases at Princeton and ensure that borrowers' requests are promptly assigned to studios that have the needed volunteer skills.

The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) includes state as well as nongovernment organizations; the main performer is Tulane University in Louisiana [3]. The purpose of this large, 7-year old effort is to reduce the risk of famine in an east-west strip of African countries from Mauritania to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Technical organizations in the United States and the United Kingdom provide remote-sensing image data, in digital form, related to cloud cover and precipitation. The data are interpreted by experts in Africa; the information is then sent to the United States and translated into recommendations for African farmers, NGOs, local government agencies, and lending institutions. But people carry the data on diskettes in both directions. The express company DHL International carries a diskette to a remote area of the world for $70 with 4-day delivery guaranteed.

The present plans of FEWS to put FidoNet nodes in the targeted countries can bring dramatic improvements in project effectiveness. For example, the present ten-day information cycle can be shortened. Costs will drop and experts located in different targeted countries can easily consult each other.


In many parts of the world, voice telephone does not work well and the cost of a postage stamp for international mail is two days of salary of a university professor. Many NGOs that need telecommunications prefer the most basic methods of communication: voice phone, fax and telex. These methods are the most costly and they are not useful for data transfer: databases, spreadsheets, technical graphics, and word- processing manuscripts. In view of the savings of money and time, as well as other advantages, there must be important obstacles to the greater use of electronic-communications technology by NGOs. Assuming motivated operators and managers, the principal obstacles to adoption of better technologies are as follows:

GAINING THE POTENTIAL ADVANTAGES: Examples of Low-Cost, High-Yield Approaches

Many NGOs already have the equipment they need to get started. The minimal configuration for realizing benefits includes a PC or other microcomputer, a modem, and ready access to an enthusiastic, computer- literate person. The approaches within reach for low-cost data transmission are usable individually or in combination; they are summarized as follows:

Approaches requiring telephone line and modem.

-- Modem-to-modem data transmission. At pre-arranged times, a computer in an industrial country telephones its partner in a developing country and carries out a two-way exchange of data [10]. The success of this method is due to the comparatively low cost of originating the phone call in an industrial country, and to the recent development of automatic error-checking methods for file transfer over noisy phone lines.

-- Electronic networks, many of them carrying e-mail, can transmit data and files. Of special interest are the nonprofit Association for Progressive Communications, whose global networks provide low-cost service to 14,000 subscribers in 92 countries, and CGNET Services International. Many of their subscribers are NGOs. Among networks, FidoNet deserves special mention because of its low cost, availability, and effectiveness. It is a noncommercial, telephone-linked network of computer hobbyists, totally user supported; the world node list is updated every week [9]. Through "gateways", FidoNet operators can access the major global networks. Many operators also run bulletin boards, which may provide public access to global networks for persons who lack network accounts. The software for setting up a Fidonet node is free or inexpensive. There are hundreds of thousands of Fidonet nodes in the world; may with multiple users; in all of Africa outside of South Africa, there are about 9 nodes.

-- Bulletin board systems (BBSs) are operated by microcomputer owners. Excellent software for operating BBSs is available free. A BBS can be dialled on the public telephone system by other computer users. The caller can read or leave messages, and transfer files to or from the BBS. Through many BBSs, any computer user can access international E- mail networks for a fee or no fee; one recent listing shows 116 U.S.- based BBSs that offer open access [7]. There are relatively few BBSs in developing countries, but Jensen and Sears [13] report their recent rapid increase in Africa.

Approaches not requiring a telephone line.

-- Packet-radio systems. These transmit digital information with extremely high accuracy and often at very low cost. The power of packet radio to reach remote areas is vastly increased through satellite technology. A complete, solar-powered ground station (including microcomputer) for communicating with a satellite now costs about $7,000.

-- Amateur ("ham") radio technology provides the oldest and best established public telecommunications network [1]. There are 450,000 hams licensed in the United States and 1,574 licensed in 37 countries of Subsaharan Africa. Ham radio is probably underused by NGOs.


We have described some of the ways NGOs now benefit from the low- unit cost, high-yield capabilities of the emerging networks. We now summarize some of the most successful implementations from the perspective of management support, hardware and software, training and aviability.

Management Support.

Since most NGOs are small, focused, and local rather than global in scope, their leaders must become aware that the steps needed to connect to a broader group of users are relatively simple, less expensive than expected, and capable of offering massive leverage from a small investment. Thus, ways must be found to explain to key NGO personnel the rudiments of connecting to networks, including many positive examples of the types we have described. This objective can be reached in several ways. For example, a larger, successful NGO with experience and competence in the region, acting as an agent of technology transfer, sets up training for managers and offers to connect with smaller NGOs on a phased basis. The more experienced organization can be nearby or in a distant country. It is crucial to focus on the specific tasks and needs of each NGO and on assuring that a fully functioning cadre is left behind. Some nonprofit NGOs specialize in transferring communication and other information management technologies to smaller organizations at cost. Examples include Telecommunications Cooperative Network (Washington, D.C.), TechnoServe (Boston, Mass.) Massachusetts, and Volunteers in Technical Assistance.

Hardware and Software.

Few hardware or software problems in network connectivity have not been solved in some location or another. There is a vast amount of information about what works and what doesn't in hardware, software and network services. For example, a new connection to Internet and BITNET is being developed by the Escuela Politecnica del Litoral in Guayaquil, Ecuador, under a grant from the Mellon Foundation for Value Added Services (VAS). VAS aims to make so much information available to the key leaders of this polytechnic and its 900 faculty members that there are few unsolved problems at implementation time. In Brazil, NGOs buy microcomputers for $1,000 to $2,000 and join Alternex, a Brazilian network that connects indirectly but quickly and cheaply to peer organizations in 70 countries [2].

Training and Follow-up.

Usually, the most crippling infrastructural shortage in developing countries is of technically trained persons and technical services. Two steps are needed. First, training must be supplied by visits or short courses conducted in the client country or, if abroad, by persons familiar with conditions in the client country. The second essential step consists of follow-up activities that address local technical problems as they arise, with a short response time, and provide continuing advice and encouragement. The follow-up activities should be planned so that they do not foster dependence on the donor.

Forming Partnerships.

In addition to training, there are often shortages of equipment, foreign exchange, literature resources, and planning tools. Other impediments may include slow or uncooperative customs procedures, bad telephones, a poor dealer network, and failure of new software and hardware to perform as expected. It may happen that local policy makers, unaware of the high return from investment in communications, cannot be persuaded to support it, or even to license modems [11]. Many infrastructural deficits take time to overcome, but are often best addressed by forming an enduring, voluntary, professional partnership with a peer in another country. The result of this arrangement is that both sides share some of the infrastructural resources of the country that is better off. There is often a two-way flow of technical information that benefits both sides. Once low-cost, international electronic messaging is launched, it becomes easy to join international groups of peers who share interests through electronic messages and documents, and can help each other. On BITNET alone, there are more than 2,000 such groups.

* * *

SOURCES: Space does not allow us to thank individually the many persons consulted during preparation of this paper. The references listed below exclude annual reports and other organizational prospectuses.

[1] American Radio Relay League, 1991. ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs: 1992. 69th ed. Newington, Conn.: ARRL. M. Hertel (ed.), 1989, Radio Amateur Callbook, International Listings Exclusive of North America and Hawaii. Lake Bluff (Ill.): Radio Amateur Callbook.

[2] S. Annis, 1991, "Giving Voice to the Poor." Foreign Policy Vol. 84 (Fall 1991), pp. 93-106.

[3] E. Aupperte, 1992, "USA NSF Backbone," Internet Society News Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 6

[4] A. Bebbington, 1991. "Sharecropping Agricultural Development, the Potential for GSO-Government Cooperation." Grassroots Development Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 21-30. Diane B. Bendahmane, 1991, "Performance Review for NGOs," loc. cit., pp. 31-37. Inter-American Foundation, 1991, A Guide to NGO Directories; How to Find Over 11,000 Nongovernmental Organizations in Latin America and The Caribbean. Rosslyn, Va.: Inter- American Foundation.

[5] R. Barad, 1992, Applications for FidoNet Technology in Famine Early Warning: Tests Conducted 27-31 Jan uary 1992, prepared for the Tulane / Pragma Group, Washington, D.C.: US Agency for International Development. US Agency for International Development, 1991, Famine Early Warning System, Project Paper, Amendment No. 2, No. 698-0466, 6 September 1991, Washington, D.C.: U.S. AID.

[6] C. Clements, 1992. "HealthNet connects Africa to vital medical data." Satellite Communications, 1992 (January): pp. 18-21. R. Pool, 1991, "Opening Up Communications." Nature Vol. 353, p. 293.

[7] Diskmuncher [pseud.], , 1992, RE: Publicly Accessable [sic] Internet Sites. Electronic posting on Internet, February 14.

[8] D.P. Dern, 1992, "Applying the Internet, Corporate, Research, Educational, Governmental, and Other Real-World Issues." Byte 1992 (Feb.) pp. 111-114, 118.

[9] Fido Software, 1992, FidoNet Nodelist ... A Listing of the Systems Within FidoNet. San Francisco: Fido Software; electronic posting on FidoNet, March 20.

[10] G.L. Garriott, 1991, "Africa: Better Data Communications," DevelopNet News (electronic publ. ) Vol. 1, No. 4 (July).

[11] G.L. Garriott, 1991, "Packet Radio in Earth and Space Environments For Relief and Development." Paper presented at the 34th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, St. Louis, Mo., November 23-26, 1991. Anon., 1992, "Four New Ground Stations Talk to VITA's Satellite," DevelopNet News (electronic publ. ) Vol. 2, No. 3 (March).

[12] V. Gurbaxani, 1990, "Diffusion in Computing Networks: The Case of BITNET", Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery Vol. 33, No. 12 (December): pp. 65-75.

[13] M. Jensen, and G. Sears, 1991, "Low Cost Global Electronic Communications Networks for Africa." Paper presented at the 34th Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, St. Louis, Mo., November 23- 26, 1991.

[14] D. Kinley, 1991, "Zambia: Women Organize for Safe Water," UNDP Source (June) pp. 6, 7, 9.

[15] L. Landweber, 1992, "Internet Connectivity Report", April 18, 1992, Reston, Va.: Internet Society.

[16] E. Puliatti, 1990, "Computer-Mediated Communications Systems and Developing Countries," Development Vol. 1, No. 2: pp. 60-65.

[17] S. Ruth, F. Utreras and R. Brescia, 1990, "The South American Network Within One Year: An Attainable, Low Cost High Yield Reality," Interciencia Vol. 15, pp. 259-264.

[18] S. Ruth, 1992, "Using Powerful, Low Cost High Yield Academic Networks in Developing Nations: A Value Added Services Perspective," International Information Systems Vol. 1, No. 3, in publication.

[19] Unesco, 1991, Guide to the Information Activities of European Development Networks, 1st ed. Paris: Unesco.

[20] UN Development Programme, 1990, Human Development Report, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 185.

From: IN%"VITA@GMUVAX.BitNet" "Volunteers in Technical Assistance" 
26-JUL-1992 10:56:36.90
Subject: Re: Copy of Stephen Ruth's paper- NGOs

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar
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