Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 30, May 2002 


The internet and human rights advocacy in Africa

Firoze Manji
Firoze Manji is Director, Fahamu - learning for change, Unit 14, Standingford House, Cave Street, Oxford OX4 1BA UK. +44(0)1865-791777 (tel), +44 (0)1865-203009(fax), email:;

The revolution in information and communications technologies (ICTs), and in particular the internet, has (potentially) transformed the way we organize, relate, discuss or debate with each other, and the way we can exchange, find, retrieve, and disseminate information - even the way in which information itself is produced.

As with the products of previous technological revolutions, the technology itself is not 'neutral'. It serves the interests of those who exercise control. All technological developments have the potential for either contributing to the emancipation of humankind, or serving the self-interest of a minority (often with socially destructive consequences). The extent to which the technology may be used for either purpose depends both upon the power of those who control it and the extent to which organized civil society concedes that control or itself harnesses the technology for the benefit of the majority.

Although less well developed than in the north, access to the Internet has spread rapidly in Africa. In 1996 only 16 countries had access to the Internet; by 1998, 49 of the 54 countries were online, with most African capitals having more than one internet service provider. According to Mike Jensen, the number of computers permanently connected to the internet extended beyond 10,000 in 1999, but this probably grossly underestimates the actual numbers, given the widespread use of .com and .net addresses. It is estimated that there are probably around four million internet users in Africa - or about one internet user for every 200 people - compared to a world average of about one user for every 30 people, and a North American and European average of about one in every 3 people.1

The constraints of accessing the web
Fahamu started life four years ago with the ambition of providing learning and information materials via the web. We began by developing some straightforward training materials on a subject that we knew would have a wide appeal. We decided to produce a web-based training course on how to write effective grant proposals.2

It was only when we tested out the material in the region that we realized the problems faced by those accessing the materials over the internet. There were three problems: First, limited bandwidth available made downloading times of web pages very slow and cumbersome, sometimes taking several minutes to open a text-only web page. Secondly, the cost of accessing the web was generally prohibitive for most small organizations (in some cases, people reported charges as high as $10 per minute). Thirdly, telephone lines were often poor: for example, it was not unusual to have to dial in at least three times over the space of half an hour just to view the same web page.

Clearly, these were not conditions that were particularly conducive to effective learning. Although the newspapers at the time were full of reports about how the web would soon be accessible to millions in Africa, we were (and still remain) sceptical about the rate at which easy and fast access was likely to develop. The question then was, how do we make materials, with all the advantages of interactivity that we associate with the web, available to those who have limited access to the internet? We decided that we would put the material on CDROM.

Our next step was to find out more about the problem of accessing the internet in the region. In 1998, with the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), we undertook a survey of the training needs of human rights organizations in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. We interviewed over a hundred organizations and visited the offices of more than sixty of them.3 We found that - even in 1998 - email had become almost ubiquitous in the region. Our survey also indicated that, although many had access to the web, few understood how the medium could be used effectively for research and, even when they did, poor connections made the experience frustrating.

As a result of what we learned through our survey, we decided to take three initiatives. First, we established the 'Adilisha' project, whose aim was to develop distance-learning materials designed to strengthen the campaigning, advocacy and organizational capacity of human rights organizations. This project is currently developing CDROM-based learning materials which will accompany distance-learning courses supervised via email and provided through face-to-face workshops. The courses we are developing include: fact finding and investigation methods, monitoring and reporting skills, advocacy, lobbying and campaigning skills, leadership and management, financial management, fundraising, training of trainers, and using the internet for advocacy and research. Most of these CDROMs will become available within the next six months.4

Our second initiative was to support the establishment of Kabissa to provide free web and email hosting for African non-profit organizations. By renting space on a 'virtual server', we provided space on the internet for those who could not afford to obtain such a service locally. The server also provided them with free access to a range of internet-based services including domain name registration, mailing list server, file transfer protocol (ftp), information services, shareware and other free software. Within a year, Kabissa had more than 300 members.

Thirdly, we decided that we needed to find a way to research and collate information on social justice, advocacy and development in a systematic manner, and to disseminate this information via email. Our goal was to find a way in which the human rights and advocacy community in the region could keep up to date with the wealth of information available and circulating on the internet, as well as to provide a platform that could be used by this community to share information and ideas. Thus was born 'Fahamu-News', which soon became the 'Kabissa-Fahamu Newsletter', and eventually 'Pambazuka News' (produced in collaboration with Kabissa and SANGONeT).

Pambazuka News
At the beginning of December 2000 we launched the first issue of 'Kabissa-Fahamu Newsletter' with approximately 700 subscribers. Little did we realize what we were about to unleash. The number of subscribers began to increase exponentially. By August 2001 we had more than 6000 subscribers, the majority of whom were in Africa. At the time of writing there are nearly 8000 subscribers.5

Our aim was to provide comprehensive coverage, in summary form, of the major web site and information sources related to conflict, human rights, and development. Each week we included an editorial commenting on critical issues of the day. We sought to make the web available in digest form, making it easier for people to keep up with developments and to find information in a systematic way.

Whatever the reasons for the growth in popularity of the newsletter, it is striking that we have been able to set up, at relatively little cost, an information service that reaches so many people in Africa. In the past, gaining access to 8000 subscribers would have meant having access to substantial resources or alliances with media magnates. Perhaps the most important philosophy behind the success of the newsletter has been the idea that, if people can't get to the web, we must bring the web to them. This includes not just those who are unable to access the web because of problems with connections, but also those who don't have time in their busy lives to search for information that we provide so regularly.

We think that this may need to be taken further. For many years yet, the 'digital divide' is going to be a feature of our lives and of our continent. Perhaps like no other technology to date, information and communications technologies have the capacity to amplify social differentiation, expanding the divide between those who have and those who do not. But that will remain the case only in so far as we allow it.

1. See and accompanying paper by Mike Jensen
2. Eventually produced as a CDROM (1998), 'Proposals that make a difference: how to write effective grant proposals'. Oxford. ISBN09536902-0-2
3. Manji F, Jaffer M, & Njuguna EN (2000), 'Using ICTs to enhance the capacity of human rights organizations in southern Africa'. In: Voices from Africa: Information and Communication Technologies, UNCTAD/NGO Liaison Service, Vol. 9, pp 19-32
5.  [end]  [BPN, no 30, 2002, pp 6-8.]

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