Connectivity to solve poverty: How would you connect?

As I sit at home, exhausted after a huge last week and begin (finally) preparing my post for Blog Action Day, I have been contemplating a comment sent to me by my dear friend, Melina Chan recently. Melina is current located in Cambodia, working on an AYAD program around micro-finance lending and community development to alleviate poverty. She is an amazing person, and a true ‘squiggly thinker’ – she’s absolutely amazing at creating organic, win-win, high value relationships with good people to solve complex problems, and someone I have learned a lot from in the time I have known her.

She commented on one of my posts late last week asking for advice on how the many different AYAD participants, who are spread geographically around the Asia-Pacific region, could better communicate and share learning’s across timezones, locations and dodgy-internet. Specifically, she says:

“We are often isolated geographically, with limited internet access (ie. dial up speeds, unreliable connections, downtime in power shortages and thunderstorms), and are often the only native English speakers in our organisations.”

So, on Blog Action Day, I thought what better way to act than post about the problems Mel is having in Cambodia and hopefully, with your comments, provide her with information and possible solutions she can use in the fight against poverty. Please comment with any suggestions, technologies or any other ideas you may have. This is for her! Some of my suggestions are below, which I’ve tried to create based on three key issues Mel will be facing in the field:

1) Limited/sensitive connectivity means the internet can drop out or be unavailable at anytime. Thus, any service used must either be a) mobile web enabled or b) remain intact and accessible even if some people with the AYAD network can’t access it for a time.

2) Remain time-independent. The AYADs often travel in-country, and would often be away from a computer for days/weeks/months on end. Thus, organising time for the whole network to meet will almost certainly be impossible.

3) Whilst it will be tough for the whole network to group together at once, it should be easier to form small groups of conversations/sharing. Even just 2 person conversations are hugely valuable.  

Dealing with limited internet access

Obviously, this will be the toughest problem to solve. Tim Costello, in one of our interviews with him for the Learn About Poverty blog, commented that a reportedly better solution to poverty was to buy mobile phones for everyone in need due to the devices ability to connect people for trade, business and political opportunities.

So in this case, I would suggest giving some mobile connectivity devices such as twitter a go. World Vision International were using twitter for a time to communicate to a small internal audience with status reports from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was an experiment, which was curtailed afterwards because of it’s inability to scale but the technology still worked. Perhaps, you could create a small twitter account which AYADs could update to with links or asks for help. ie: “Does anyone have a strategic planning framework to use when facilitating?”

Creating tacit knowledge ‘sinks’ 

The other option, if it eventuates that twitter doesn’t work, is actually a tool I posted about on the digital-flexi-tools post, Campfire. Campfire is a relatively low bandwidth program, which opens up a chat and allows you to swap files (hard under the conditions you’re in) and chat with people live. The real beauty of campfire, is that those conversations are recorded, so the history of your conversation remains there for other AYADs to view, creating instant, global access to tacit knowledge. I subject I know you (Mel) are very keen on!  You can create a sink of knowledge, but constantly having conversations on your campfire site, and encouraging other AYADs to do the same.


Unlike normal IM programs, Campfire can be organised by emailing a link to people and perhaps organising a time to meet there. Just like a true campfire, it tends to be used as a destination to meet. Once around the campfire, you can chat and discuss issues you need to, and share links etc etc on a low-bandwidth connection. If you had internet connection, I’m certain this would work (let us know how you go).

Utilise Google Docs to create copy-paste content

This is a tougher one. Google docs is a pretty awesome place to share documents without needing to send huge files over email etc. I would suggest that you move any documents you have, which may be valuable to other AYADs, to a google docs account. This way, you can include AYADs on any edits that take place, as well as allow people to copy-paste format independent content into whatever business/program/proposal template they may happen to be writing.

They can then add their own content back, and share it with you when you are ready. This is a key feature. Just like campfire, the content you put into the google docs account stays there, so it doesn’t require large active members, online live, to become a useful service. All you would need is the internet to be working (granted, not a guarantee) and you can access templates and content anytime, without needing to connect with others then. Again, this doesn’t need a huge number of people active within the community to be immensely valuable, and once you have two or three people adding content, the resource suddenly becomes much more powerful and more useful for others to see and add to.

Start small. Don’t expect to get to home base on the first date

Getting every member of the local AYAD network on board at the conception stage of these tools will be really tough. You’ll be better off Mel taking some advice from Ross Hill and just start small, with a simple idea of what you want to achieve. 

You might: Get up a campfire, and invite one other person in your time zone to join in. Discuss something of value to both of you, and then once you have that conversation ‘in the sink’ forward another invite and repeat it with someone else, building on the first conversation. Soon, you’ll have a comprehensive, recorded text discussion of how people would approach your topic. People will then flock to the campfire to remember what they discussed, copy-paste any useful content and generally use the service to improve their work. Once you have this in place, you can grow to including full business proposals on Google Docs etc etc, but start simple. You don’t expect to get to home base on the first date, so don’t expect it here 🙂

That’s some of my thoughts. Please, I’m want to hear your thoughts out there about how Melina could keep communication up between AYADs to improve their knowledge and sharing abilities. Hopefully, we can create a great ‘knowledge sink’ ourselves which Melina can use to make things happen and better deal with poverty.

10 thoughts on “Connectivity to solve poverty: How would you connect?

  1. Hi Guys,

    Not an AYAD but got connected to this discussion through Steve Hopkins at World Vision. Steve mentioned you guys are having trouble connecting over there in a meaningful way because of some technical difficulties. I can’t speak to your exact requirements, but did hear about a great initiative, called OLPC, One Laptop Per Child. This group of people, developed an awesome, durable low maintenance laptop for children in Africa. Pretty awesome piece of equipment that helps children in remote communities still access the internet and use programs that don’t require a lot of memory. Obviously its not applicable to your needs but just to note that there are some alternatives out there. The other option is good old reliable telephone and fax, where internet might suffer these will be fast and get to the point.

    Cheers and goodluck.

  2. Steve I think you’ve covered the current tech options very well.

    I’d predict that the next big thing in this space will be for NGOs to realise the potential value of having everyone connected, and to formally establish a comms network for their own specific purpose. As you’ve said this can be done pretty easily and cheaply with what’s already out there.

    Such a network would work best if it’s actively coordinated, so that would mean staffing some sort of regional or global operations/communications hub, which might be a collaboration between a number of NGOs. Their tasks might include actively matching info and resources within the network, which could add tremendous value. Not to mention the morale effect on fieldworkers.

    With the evolution of mobile devices, such a system could operate through the mobile phone network, I’m sure.

    Back in ’93 during my time in Somalia, I got access to a phone four times in five months, had no Internet at all, and snail mail took 3-6 weeks to arrive. How things have changed!

  3. Thanks guys for the comments. Dom, I think the OLPC idea is genious and I can’t understand why these are not standard issue for AYADs. Does anyone know where you can pick one up?

    Steve, I think your advice around having a global/regional head in charge of coordinating and matching info within the network is an awesome idea, I would have assumed AusAid have the required capital to make such a function happen.

    Thanks again for the great comments!

  4. @SteveHopkins For a while you could get your own OLPC if you bought one for a child. Not sure if that is still possible. ebay?

    I agree with starting small. How can you get 5 people connected? Start with 2, and invite 3 others to the next event after that.

    You obviously need a network of some sort, so what is the most available? Campfire might even be getting a bit complicated, what about a simple email list? Craigslist started because he would email people with opportunities – he didn’t even have a website, it was just a mass-email list he would BCC. You can start this yourself.

    The time difference is a minor detail I would think. If you can only get on there every week or two and you’re not alone – that will set the pace for the conversation and everyone will get used to it.

    If you want to use a web-based solution check out which lets you set up your own little social network in a few minutes. You can then invite people and you have the functions for blogs, forums, messages, profiles etc. That’s easy to manage as well.

    Another option is a blog – go to and sign up for a free blog. Put a clear message on the about page and stick the post to the top explaining how it works. Ie people can email you with topics they would like to discuss, you copy-paste-blog their message to the blog and people can comment. Make sure people know how to subscribe to the blog by rss or email (most likely email). You’re off and racing!

    @SteveMcDonald I think the idea is great but as you keep telling me.. you can’t skip to the higher levels without going through the lower ones. Craigslist started with Craig sending emails, then it was too much to maintain so he made a single webpage, and it has since grown to what it is today. I think Melina could do the same – get the thing happening with the vision of installing it in a larger NGO down the track.

    What I’d do, right now, before you even reply to these comments – is send an email to 2-3 people you already know (know will respond) and explain what you want to do, and start a discussion topic by email. You can move it to another platform later when you actually have some conversation happening 🙂

  5. Great comment Ross…I’ve been waiting for the ‘start with the simplest thing’ rant to come from you for a while! We’re still waiting for the blog post…the ‘Spiral Dynamics of a business start up, perhaps?’

    Mel, I think you could start (as Ross stated) with an email back and forth with someone who you knew was going through the same things. But, to me, do this ONLY until you can migrate those conversations to Campfire/Ning so you can build the tacit knowledge sink for future AYADs. This is an important step, which moves the onus from YOU to the COMMUNITY where knowledge sharing is concerned.

  6. Ross the ‘can’t skip a stage’ thing applies to complexity, not scale. You can start large scale but with simple thinking/design/operation, provided it’s manageable of course. Starting small is a good idea though, to test the concept.

    You can use SD to plot organisational growth. This model of Ichak Adizes is also quite useful:

  7. Hi all,

    One of the disciplines required to solve complex problems is to test the assumptions. I totally get the desire to connect and share with other AYADs, and I also get the natural inclination to use technology.

    I wonder what the problem is? Is there are local solution? We are all familiar with the scenario; “I don’t know what the question is but I sure know the answer is.”

    So is the question about connection with other AYADs, or is it about knowledge sharing, encourgaement, resourcing etc?

    Sorry to come late to the discussion – Mel, hope you are well.


  8. Hi Col – never to late!

    Love the response, and thanks for the clarifying questions. Truth be told, I’m not sure what the key question is, but to me it’s a case of connecting AYADs doing similar work to share their learnings and resources, to help make the ‘next’ piece of work easier.

    I think a growing trend is the building of different pieces of work (Ruby on Rails style) to fit together on top of existing works done by different people. @Pat would know better than I, but the idea of allowing AYADs to build on each others work and learnings, would surely help move them to a higher impact than they may be currently having (That’s not to say, of course, that they are not already having a huge impact).

    This is where the thinking of @Ross and @SteveMc1 tie in. Start with a simply method of communication (perhaps on a large scale, perhaps not) and go from there, building one block of communication at a time. The result would be a great tacit knowledge sink, which would be available for other AYADs in the future to reference and build on.

    Or perhaps that’s just me getting caught in the tactics again.

  9. Cambodia relies too much on two industries: textile and tourism. These industries are particularly vulnerable to the global economic downturn. We need to focus our efforts on our natural strength, which is agriculture, not tourism or textile.

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