David Barnard, Executive Director of SANGONeT Tells the SANGONeT story
SANGONeT celebrates its 19th anniversary in 2006. It is an organisation with a unique identity, history and track record which is closely associated with the socio-political changes experienced by South Africa during the past two decades.
Since inception, SANGONeT has been at the forefront of providing information communication technology (ICT) services to Southern African civil society organisations (CSOs), including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions, donors and other development agencies.
SANGONeT was founded as WorkNet in 1987 by the Labour and Economic Research Centre (LERC), an organisation that worked with the South African trade union movement. At the time, the main users of SANGONeT’s services were journalists and political activists who were the first to benefit from new communication technologies in disseminating information about the South African situation to local and international audiences.
As a result, SANGONeT’s historical and current role was always defined and governed by the organisations and communities that it aimed to serve. WorkNet changed its name in 1993 to the Southern African NGO Network (SANGONeT) in response to the changing profile of its users - the local NGO sector - and its growing links with development organisations throughout the Southern African region.
SANGONeT was one of the first Internet Service Providers (ISPs) established in South Africa and is still one of very few African NGOs involved in ICT-related issues, including service provision dedicated to the broader NGO sector.
Given the low ICT skills and infrastructure levels of the NGO sector, NGOs involved in ICT issues, have a major responsibility to create awareness amongst other NGOs of ICT issues in general, and inform them of both the policy challenges in this regard, as well as the practical relevance of ICT solutions in support of their development work. The challenge is to expose NGOs to ICT issues and encourage them to take an active interest in this regard.
Part of SANGONeT’s success over the years has been its demonstrated ability to re-invent itself in line with environmental, sectoral and institutional challenges.
In the past two years SANGONeT has embarked on a process aimed at changing the focus and scope of its activities from that of a traditional ICT service provider to a facilitator of development information, ICT services, and dialogue on strategic ICT issues.
As a result, SANGONeT has made various strategic changes to its operational focus and organisational structure. A number of SANGONeT’s historical and defining ICT products and services (e.g. dial-up, training, etc.) were phased out, delivery strategies changed and new initiatives conceptualised and implemented.
These changes were informed by developments in the civil society, funding and ICT environments in which SANGONeT operates, as well as the ongoing assessment of the relevance of its products and services in response to the ICT challenges facing South African NGOs.
SANGONeT has conceptualised and implemented the following four important new ICT initiatives in support of the NGO sector during the past three years:
Thetha: The SANGONeT ICT Discussion Forum - launched in March 2003, Thetha forums provide NGOs with the opportunity to discuss ICT issues of common concern at both provincial and national levels. In remote areas of the country the forums are commonly the first introduction to ICTs for NGOs. SANGONeT has already organised 20 Thetha forums, and in 2006 will expand this initiative to five Southern African countries.
NGO.ZA - launched in October 2004, this online ICT procurement facility aims to meet and respond to the NGO sector's connectivity, hardware and e-business infrastructure requirements, and as a result, transform the ICT usage, capacity and infrastructure levels of the sector.
SANGONeT “ICT for Civil Society” Conference and Exhibition - this annual event, first held in March 2005, presents NGOs will an important opportunity to reflect on the challenges and opportunities presented by ICTs in support of their work.
South African NGO Portal - launched in October 2004, it provides the South African NGO sector with comprehensive development information, capacity-building and networking resources.
SANGONeT’s ICT services and interventions continue to be shaped by the challenge of strengthening the capacity of NGOs in finding long-term and sustainable solutions in response to Southern Africa’s development problems. NGOs’ capacity for service delivery increasingly requires that attention be given to their ability to use, manage and implement as well as integrate ICTs into their activities. Although many Southern African NGOs are already active users of ICTs, much more needs to be done to build the capacity of the sector.
The ongoing challenge facing SANGONeT is to strengthen its role and contribution through the relevance of its products and services, customising its ICT services to the specific needs of the NGO sector; improving its interaction, relationship and response to the needs of current and potential NGO clients; building relationships and partnerships with strategic roleplayers in the NGO, government and private sectors; and to provide leadership and guidance to NGOs as far as ICT issues are concerned.
In response to this situation, SANGONeT’s future activities will be geared towards optimising its activities and resources, and increasing its impact on ICT uptake in the South African NGO sector. The emphasis will be on brokering a wide range of affordable and relevant ICT solutions for the NGO sector in conjunction with private sector ICT services providers, expanding and integrating its range of development information products and services, deepening its knowledge of the NGO sector, intensifying its ICT advocacy and stakeholder engagement activities and consolidating its leadership role on ICT issues in the NGO sector.
The successful introduction of these objectives and strategies will ultimately ensure SANGONeT’s long-term relevance and sustainability.