Three years back, if someone would have told me that a new electronic newsletter on social justice in Africa would reach a readership three years later of more than 70,000 people every week, most of them in Africa, and that this could be done without forming an alliance with media magnates or multinationals, I would have told them they were insane. Yet that is exactly what ‘Pambazuka News’ has succeeded in doing. Almost without realising, Fahamu has become a publisher of news and with a constituency that not only consumes what we produce, but also actively feeds information to the newsletter on a regular basis.
Pambazuka News was the serendipitous offspring of a programme established to harness ICTs for strengthening the human rights movement in Africa. Its birth was intimately intertwined with an attempt to develop distance learning materials for civil society organisations in Africa. In 1997, Fahamu set out to examine how developments in ICTs can be harnessed to support the growth of human rights and civil society organisations in Africa. Like many others, we saw the potentials opening up with the growth in access to the Internet.
Although less well developed than in the industrialised world, access to the Internet has spread rapidly in Africa. The current estimates of the total number of African Internet users is at around 5-8 million, with about 1.5-2.5 million outside North and South Africa. This is about one user for every 250-400 people, compared to a world average of about one user for every 15 people.
In 1998, we undertook surveys involving more than 100 human rights and civil society organisations in eastern and southern Africa. We wanted to know how such organisations used the Internet, what kind of technology they had access to, what their training priorities were, and the way they managed their organisations. Although most organisations had access to email, access to the web was found to be much more problematic because of low bandwidth. One of the biggest constraints to accessing the Internet was found to be the cost of going online. The average cost of using a local dialup Internet account for 20 hours a month in Africa, is about $60 (including call charges). To understand the relative scale of these charges, $60 is higher than the average African monthly salary.
Many of these organisations had difficulties accessing training. In part, this was due to the relatively high cost of course fees. In addition, faced as they are by the day-to-day demands of activism in a frequently hostile political environment, with deteriorating economic conditions, and ever-increasing public demands on a small number of committed and experienced staff, many of these organisations have difficulties in giving priority to capacity building either within or beyond their own institutions. Most training undertaken by human rights and civil society organisations in the region were in the form of short workshops. In-depth training was rarely possible without long absences from work, and therefore relatively few have attended longer, residential courses. Given the fragility of many of these organisations, many said that prolonged absences of key staff threatened their viability.
Our survey confirmed the findings of previous studies on the training needs of human rights organisations in the region. Their priorities included skills training in fact-finding, investigation and monitoring; knowledge and application of international and regional standards and mechanisms, especially in the field of social and economic rights; strategies for human rights litigation, reporting complaints and adjudication; provision of paralegal services; campaigning and lobbying; documentation techniques and uses of documentation; monitoring of elections and trials; popular education and human rights education. Because of the problems of access, relatively few organisations at the time had much experience in using the Internet for systematic research except for investigations using the most common search engines and collecting and sending e-mails. Few had experience of using the Internet in their advocacy work.
Developing interactive course materials using ICTs
We designed our courses with three phases. In the first phase (usually lasting about 10 weeks), participants are provided with carefully designed interactive CDROM that helps them to learn the subject at their own pace. They are connected to each other and to the course tutor via an email list where they discuss issues arising in the course of their studies, and where they hold asynchronous discussions on topics set by the tutor. During this phase, they are required to complete and submit via email as attachments a series of assignments. Their work is formally assessed by the course tutor.
In the second phase, those who have completed the first phase satisfactorily are invited to attend a 3-4 day workshop held at a convenient location.
In the third phase of the course, participants are required to carry out a practical project, putting into practice what they have learned during the first two phases. They prepare a written report on their project that is then formally assessed.
There were a number of challenges in developing appropriate learning materials. The first challenge we faced was to work out how large quantities of material could be transferred to an interactive medium that could be stored and delivered on CDROM. After extensive research, we had decided that we would use Macromedia Director as the medium for delivering the course materials as it gave us the flexibility for producing the range of exercises and interactivity that we knew would be required. The first course materials took nearly a year to produce from manuscript to interactive CDROM, subsequent CDROMs were produced at a rate of one a month!
The courses we have developed include: (a) Introduction to human rights, (b) Investigating, monitoring and reporting on human rights violations, (c) Action for change: advocacy and citizen participation, (d) Leadership and management for change, (e) Practical financial management for NGOs, (f) Fundraising and resource mobilisation, (g) Using the Internet for advocacy and research, (h) Campaigning for access to information, (i) The role of the media in the Rwandan genocide, (j) JustWrite: an online course on effective writing.
We are currently in the process of developing courses on the prevention of torture and conflict prevention in association with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Systems Staff College, and the Association for the Prevention of Torture. In their evaluation of this programme, the external evaluators stated that the materials are genuinely innovative in the field they seek to serve