I tried several times—unsuccessfully—to post this comment on a recent post on the Safadi Foundation USA blog, Developing Lebanon. It’s an important topic that’s being raised and I want to continue the discussion, if a bit belatedly. Below is some thinking from SMEX:
I appreciate the mention of our work in Lebanon. It’s true, we’re trying hard to help civil society take advantage of what technology has to offer, and at the same time caution against thinking of technology as a solution in itself. As a new organization that has relied almost exclusively so far on project grants, we also understand the challenges that NGOs face with regard to resources, continuity of programming, and sustainability. But it’s not all their/our fault.
Let’s not forget that the Lebanese government hasn’t done much to improve the accessibility of the internet, either in terms of cost or infrastructure. When it takes overnight to upload a video, is it any wonder that NGOs don’t see the value of beginning to explore the possibilities of the web? Our internet connection—the fastest available at 2.3 Mbps—costs us $200/month, and that’s just for 8GB of upload or download. Every additional GB is $10.
That said, it’s true that may NGOs have yet to realize the importance, not just of the web, in general, but of strategic communications plans in particular. This is partly owed to the fact that extra-internet media here are very politicized. So it will take a while for civil society, journalists, and others to develop a new media literacy and internalize the possibilities so that they can use these new tools strategically to suit their needs and, we hope, in defense of the public interest.
We’ve also struggled to keep our website updated, and initially used a content management system (CMS) that was too complex for our needs. As a result, our website and blog often needed to be updated. My one best piece of advice that I’m giving these days: Don’t hire a web developer to build a website from scratch for you. Ask them to guide you through the selection of an open-source (free and customizable) CMS like WordPress, Drupal, or Joomla. If they won’t do it, find a new developer (we can help with that). If you want a social network, check out Ning or Crabgrass. There’s really no need to pay for the creation of this infrastructure. Save your money for the person you’ll need to maintain the site and keep the content fresh. And remember, that person has to like technology. Get them some training, which is one of the things we do at SMEX.
In the past year, we’ve seen an amazing leap of awareness of the web and what it can do for civil society projects in Lebanon. That will only improve and expand as time goes on—as long as we don’t slide backwards in other ways, over which we may or may not have control.