Science and NGO success stories: How collaborating works

Copyright: Flickr/PRI's The World

Speed read

  • A potentially life-saving bracelet for aid workers is one of successful NGO-technology collaborations
  • A two-way process takes experience to the labs and prototypes to the field
  • To succeed, it is vital for projects to engage with local scientists and communities

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From kidnap alerts to solar lighting, some NGOs find the high-tech answers they need. Andrew Williams and Imogen Mathers explain how.

On the morning of 15 July 2009, Natalia Estemirova, an award-winning Russian human rights activist, was abducted from her home in Grozny, Chechnya. Her bullet-ridden body was found seven hours later in the tiny North Caucasus republic of Ingushtia, 90 kilometres away.

Natalia's death — and the murder of others like her— might have been prevented had the right people known of her kidnap in time, says Civil Rights Defenders, a Stockholm-based organisation that works to protect campaigners in some of the world's most volatile regions.

"We needed to find a way for a distress signal to reach us and people close to the person under attack," says Natasha Jevtic Esbjörnson, Civil Rights Defenders' spokesperson.

The organisation searched for a simple, cheap technology that kidnap victims could use to alert the world — and it found one at a Swedish tech company: using simply a 'smart bracelet', which, when triggered sends out a message to social media using mobile phone and GPS technologies to warn that its wearer is in danger.

This month, the first Natalia Project bracelets were unveiled, successfully marrying a development community's urgent need with a product in the nascent tech industry.

This is just one example of the two communities working hand-in-hand to deliver practical science benefits for development.

Similar scientific and technological innovation underpins development and human rights organisations' work across the world in sectors ranging from water and sanitation to agriculture and conflict relief.

Accessing new technologies, and forging cooperation between researchers, designers and engineers, can be crucial for those working in poverty-stricken and politically volatile regions.

And strong dialogues with people on the ground enable the researchers to develop innovations that are sensitive to local needs and aspirations, ensuring they will actually be used.

Yet successful science-development links of this kind are rare. So how do those that do forge strong collaborations manage it?

A two-way process

Esbjörnson tells SciDev.Net that a strong collaboration between Civil Rights Defenders and the smart bracelet's designers, PFO Technologies, "was absolutely crucial for the project".

Galvanised by the tragedy of Natalia's murder and by increasing insecurity in the North Caucasus region, Civil Rights Defenders' " stumbled across PFO," Esbjörnson explains. "All of a sudden we had a project going."

PFO had already designed a smart bracelet for a different market, she says, and had not even thought about the possibility of using it to protect human rights defenders.

Adapting existing technology for new development use, Esbjörnson explains, was "about us defining our needs and PFO responding to these and adapting their product to suit. It was absolutely a two-way process."

This process, which involved regular meetings and product updates, went smoothly. "We managed to find mutual understanding for our different roles and to launch an idea — from the first meeting to the project start — in only a few months," she says.

Civil Rights Defenders hopes that the bracelets will be in use within weeks in republics across the North Caucasus, and eventually further afield.

Market-driven tech development

Other NGOs and companies use their market muscle to link up with scientists and steer relevant technological development.

Steve Andrews is CEO of SolarAid, a Nairobi-based NGO with a commercial arm called SunnyMoney selling cheap, solar-powered study lights to off-grid rural communities across Africa. Andrews says the organisation's heavyweight status in the market is what enables it to identify and nurture appropriate technology for the communities that need it.

"We have become the biggest seller in Africa of these kinds of lights, selling 25 per cent of all lights sold on the continent over the past six months," Andrews tells SciDev.Net. "It means we've become a significant player when it comes to purchasing." New products must represent "a challenge to our existing lines", he says, explaining that "people send us samples all the time. Maybe it's more technology for the same price, or the same technology for a lower price, or just an interesting new design that we think will be popular with our customers.

"Our chief technology officer is able to have very sophisticated conversations with the manufacturers around the build quality, the batteries and the overall functionality. That's a key interaction for the manufacturers. If they get past his scrutiny, then we will go to field tests," he says.

The tech 'know-how' advantage

Being able to rely on solid technological expertise has put SunnyMoney streets ahead of its competitors despite only being operational for three years, Andrews says.

And feedback about unsuccessful pitches helps nurture the right products to meet community needs, he explains: "We can tell them what was wrong with their product.



Flickr/PRI's The World

A demonstration in Tanzania about Solar Aid

"We use our close relationship with customers to feedback to the manufacturers about the technology, functionality and price points we need to see if products are going to sell. We are proud that we are able to help the sector move forward, producing more relevant and helpful technologies. This is very important to us."

Widening the net

Others highlight the need for broad collaborations with stakeholders outside both science and the development community, to bring ambitious new science products to actual use.

Aydogan Ozcan, lead engineer on a project designing mobile phone microscopes that help diagnose disease in remote rural communities, explains that his products were only made possible through collaboration with wide-ranging technology and development organisations, including the Gates Foundation, NASA, USAID, the Vodafone Americas Foundation and Nike.

"These organisations were extremely useful not only for assisting my research with funding, but also helping me to get in touch with other researchers, government organisations, NGOs and business people, including venture capitalists and private funders," says Ozcan, an associate professor at the Electrical Engineering Department, University of California in Los Angeles, United States.

Ozcan's start-up company, Holomic, received funding from the US government's Small Business Innovation Research programme via the US Army Research Office.

"They bring people from different backgrounds together to look at your technology and help you to develop a universal language to communicate among different communities — and excite them all about your solutions or technologies," Ozcan says.

The "set of connections and advice" he received from outside the science and development sectors also helped his team "see the big picture in terms of the global need" and identify new applications for their technology.

Overcoming western scepticism

But even with the necessary collaborations in place, developing such products is not always smooth sailing.

One of the key problems, Ozcan explains, is western funding bodies' scepticism over supporting projects in developing countries.

"Most investors are rather sceptical about the market size and revenue stream in developing countries, and are unlikely to take investment risks in technologies that primarily target these," he says.

One solution to this, he says, is to adapt 'developed country applications' to developing world contexts, and to make a product for that larger and very well-defined market, while also retargeting the same technology and product for the developing world. This is the strategy he is taking to ensure mobile phone diagnostics for diseases such as HIV and syphilis are eventually affordable in developing nations.

Another challenge, according to Teo Sanchez, an energy technology consultant to UK-based NGO Practical Action, is the social isolation of communities in the global South.

"Communities in the South are often left to themselves, and universities are not particularly interested in their issues," he says.

Local universities in the South "are very much in their shell", he says. "They have good lecturers, they do the theory, but students are educated for business… The result is that engineering graduates tend to move into lucrative professional sectors. They will never look at the poor because the poor have no money to pay."

The university link

Yet, engaged universities can approach development organisations directly, says Sanchez, offering new ideas that they think might become appropriate and innovative technologies.

For example, Practical Action is helping develop a 'score-stove', a "new design, concept and technology" comprising a fuel-efficient stove that produces heat partly for cooking and partly to produce electricity.

The major innovation is in the way the stove makes electricity that can then be used to power lights, mobile phone chargers, radios and other small appliances for off-grid rural communities, Sanchez tells SciDev.Net.

The idea came from a university group, he explains. "They approached Practical Action with the idea. The professors are good at the technical side, but wanted some specifics from the field, and that was the role of Practical Action and myself."

Involving local scientists

Sanchez believes that collaborating with researchers and universities in the countries where technologies will be used is vital for successful development projects.

"We are working with universities in Nepal and Bangladesh to create local capacity so that, in future, parts can be produced in those countries," he says.

Fuel-efficient stove_Flickr J.Ose_UNICEF Ethiopia_1024x683.jpg
A demonstration in Tanzania about Solar Aid

Training is imperative, Sanchez says. "You have to build the local capacity, to train people to operate and maintain technology. The collaboration with universities is very helpful.

"We try as much as possible to ensure that its operation and maintenance should be under complete control of the users, and that they have ways of solving any problems that arise. The idea is to transfer this as much as possible to local consultants and technicians or workshops," he says.

Marie-Pierre Preziosi, director of the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between international health NGO PATH and the WHO that aims to eliminate epidemic meningitis in Sub-Saharan Africa, explains that local collaboration is "definitely a two-way process".

"We work with clinical sites, and collaboration has been crucial to the successful development and introduction of the vaccine," she says. "Specifically, we collaborate with the local scientific community and research centres integrated within the local and national health systems."

The collaboration is "participatory", Preziosi explains: "local acceptance of the study and constant dialogue with the community are essential."

For her, such research needs to have "clear meaning" to local health authorities, researchers, and communities, so time must be spent "explaining and elaborating" the research project in collaboration with the broader development community.

"The sooner the collaborative involvement, the better," Preziosi says. "And once a research, surveillance or vaccination project is completed, it is equally important to complete the process with all the local stakeholders and share findings with them, allowing the resources and time to exchange on results and lessons learned."

This fosters trust and opens up future prospects for new projects, she says.

Local researchers in the meningitis vaccine project have fostered long-lasting collaborations with the community, she says, and many of the researchers are trained students from the communities themselves.

Community-driven design

Ensuring scientific improvements and new innovations are driven by the communities who actually use them, and so are locally appropriate, is a major concern for development organisations.

Describing the score-stove, Sanchez says: "We were permanently gathering information and attending scientific meetings. In some ways, we sat in a sort of judgement, telling the research team and engineers about shape requirements and the habits of the people using the stove — for example, the size of fuel wood and the height requirements due to the fact people generally cook sitting and not standing. The design has to respond to all of those requirements. Universities in the North don't necessarily know what communities want or need."

But it works both ways. "We also are interested in getting some practical ideas from the researchers to consider in the field," Sanchez says.

Consumer acceptance is paramount, agree both Sanchez and Andrews. Sanchez says: "We test prototypes in the field … and also gauge the reactions of people to new technologies. We then bring that information to the engineers and scientists.

"It's challenging because you have to end up with a robust, simple product — despite its technical sophistication — that is cheap and will be used by poor people in rural areas," he says.

Noha El-Ghobashy, president of Engineering for Change — an international network of engineers, scientists and NGOs — stresses that engaging those who actually use everyday technologies is a socially complex but critical lynch pin of successful development. 

"Part of the challenge is we often go to the elders or the leaders of the community, whereas most of the 'institutional knowledge', so to speak, lies with the women — those that are actually using the technologies," she says.

Andrews says he advises technology companies working on development applications to test technology rigorously in the field before scale-up. "You might avoid irrelevant and expensive technologies that are attractive to western donors and technologists but can be useless and damaging when deployed in very poor communities," he says.

"Don't sit in ivory towers in the West thinking that you can second-guess African consumers," he implores. "Get out into the field and listen to what they're saying."