October 2004

Foss and Civil Society Organisations (cso)

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Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) is affordable and easy to obtain. FOSS is flexible and adaptable to local needs. It even claims to provide a better protection against computer viruses and other intruders.

Due to these characteristics, FOSS appears to be well suited for adoption by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs). After all, CSOs are active in the public space between the State and citizens. In many cases, they work with public funds, which means that they are accountable to the taxpayer. CSOs have an interest in effective networking at the national and international levels in order to attain their goals. Worldwide, tens of thousands of CSOs form a bridge between, or provide a voice for culturally and linguistically diverse local communities.

Indeed, during the World Summit for Information Society (WSIS) in 2003, CSOs presented the manifesto 'Shaping Information Societies for Human Needs,' in which FOSS was seen as the tool to overcome the worldwide digital divide.

Nonetheless, FOSS usage is spreading less rapidly than its advocates wish, and less rapidly than one would expect given the aforementioned advantages. There are a number of reasons.

The first is that the CSO community often does not speak the same language as the FOSS community of developers and FOSS-producing companies. These are two different worlds: the world of development cooperation, with its jargon of poverty reduction indicators, and Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), versus the world of software development, with its 'techies' and a jargon that is just as difficult for outsiders to follow. Those two worlds will have to communicate more often and in a more intensive way for this to lead to a winning match. Why do we see so few partnerships between FOSS companies and development CSOs?

The second obstacle is that the community of software developers, and particularly the FOSS community, is strongly male-dominated. It is embarrassing and a completely outdated fact that meetings on OSS attract an almost exclusively male audience, and that FOSS spokespeople are almost without exception, men. Of course, there are a few excellent exceptions, such as the women from Women's Net and Gender Changers, who organise computer workshops for and by women. But it stands beyond doubt that many more of this type of initiatives should be given a chance. And far more attention should be paid to gender concerns when it comes to the use of FOSS.

A third problem is that the biggest advantage of FOSS – flexibility and freedom for everyone to modify the software to their own needs – sometimes becomes the largest disadvantage. There is an abundance of new FOSS -applications and tools. This is encouraging of course and diversity is one of the much-celebrated added-values of FOSS. But the user-friendliness and the standardisation of FOSS leave much to be desired. This is also the case for the documentation and support possibilities for users.

Many kinds of FOSS-based CMSs (Content Management Systems) for websites and for knowledge sharing compete with each other. These all claim to be the perfect solution for CSOs working in development and civil campaigning areas for the publication of their local content and towards real ownership for the users. Much knowledge and time are being invested to find the ultimate solution, in many cases reinventing the wheel. OSS claims to be based on collaborative values, but in reality this collaboration is often completely lacking.

Perhaps the largest problem of all, with the level of adoption of FOSS in the world of CSOs and NGOs, is the lack of a true political debate over the importance of FOSS. For example, at the end of 2003, Microsoft and the UNDP came to a $1-billion agreement in which the UN committed itself to the Gates empire. This agreement passed without as much as a stir in the slipstream of the WSIS in Geneva, and the CSO community that had gathered there let this happen. This agreement means that respectable public organisations and the governments that support them endorse the relentless expansion of Microsoft, while the slow advance of FOSS is nipped in the bud. Another example is the difficulty that local NGOs and FOSS activists have encountered in obtaining support for their lobby to prevent their governments from becoming involved with Microsoft in a large e-Mexico project. Yet another example, is the overwhelming silence surrounding another deal, again involving Microsoft, with an NGO in South Africa, which earlier had won different development prizes for its locally developed, low-cost ICT solutions in whole of Africa. These types of projects signify the end of local computer and software development companies in Africa and elsewhere.

Perhaps this is an overly pessimistic view. After all, the advance of FOSS in Asia in particular demonstrates that FOSS is here to stay. But it would be unfortunate if CSOs and NGOs would not make use of it on time. So, let's establish more FOSS and CSO partnerships, let's encourage more women to 'hack' their way into current male dominated FOSS communities and technologies, let's standardise and make user friendly OSS tools.

 

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