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Friday, March 19, 2010

Mobile based donations for Bangladeshi NGOs

When the North Kashmir earthquake stuck Pakistan in October 2005, the owners of the off-licence shop on top of which I used to live in North London were quick to setup a donation bucket at the check out counter in aid of their fellow countrymen and women who fell victim to the devastating natural calamity. The red buckets were wrapped with photos of distressed children and women sitting on debris and wreckage under an open sky with screaming calls to action in English and Urdu asking Londoners to donate for the tragedy. Certainly a generous move, the least people abroad could do when their roots back home are shaken and stirred by powers over which humans have no control. Keeping aside my political and historical bias, I also thought to participate in this humanitarian initiative by donating some hard earned sterlings, much to the gratitude and appreciation of my bhaijaans. Their weeklong charity event finally ended with enough cash collected from sympathised Londoners, to cook heavenly aromatic Biriyani, chicken curries and other gastronomic delights fuelled with sufficient supply of Jack Daniels, Smirnoffs and free flowing Stella Artois. Not to mention the night long merry-making with Bollywood music that ensued as they celebrated the inflow of cash, thanks to the earthquake miles away. A night of rejoicement for some, and reflections, repentance for myself, staying up all night and wondering why the hell did I waste my money by donating it to those untrustworthy exploiters.

Natural calamities are part of life in Bangladesh. We the habitants have become so resilient and used to floods, cyclones, droughts that we would lend deaf ears to threats of climate change or a massive earthquake until they actually flatten us. Our capacity and patience to deal with natural hardships also contribute to the inertia we display regarding political stalemates or even traffic jams...we are happy to express disgust and waste time, hoping that somebody else will do something about it. But when it comes to the discussion on poverty alleviation, crisis response and the eventual fundraising and donation - it has been proved time and again that there are a lot many amongst us, both within and outside Bangladesh, to help with their small contributions which become immensely powerful when summed up. Are we thinking anything in line of mobile based donations in this case? I am sure you must have come across calls for mobile donations by sending SMS to a certain shortcode in campaigns run by leading national dailies like Prothom Alo or by mobile operators themselves, like Banglalink or Aktel (stands besides Soma). I wonder how the development agencies are thinking to adopt this method.

It is argued to be a misconception that ordinary people in Bangladesh cannot afford to donate, as its a very poor country. Although the majority of the population may be under poverty line, the rich are either getting richer, the middle-class graduating to richer class or may be the actual poor are getting poorer. Whatever be the case, it does not require a crystal ball to establish that a certain class in the society has increased buying power and consumption desire which is taking them to Kathmandu and Singapore for gambling, Kolkata, Delhi for shopping, Malaysia, Thailand for holidays, leaving Cox's Bazar behind as the buying prowess can afford it. So the argument is for the fact that there are enough people inside Bangladesh who would be willing to donate for noble causes if certain criteria are met.

Authenticity of the organisation

Certainly we will not want to donate through our mobiles to a dubious or less known organisation who just might disappear next week, pretty much like the charity stunt executed by my previous neighbours in North London, as mentioned in the early section of this post. So its important to establish the authority and authenticity of the NGO to convince mobile users to donate through SMS. Its even more important as we as the NGO-mushrooming country have given room for enough frauds (count 1000+) to consider poverty reduction as a profitable business venture only and nothing else. So caution is the best policy as a donor, and if you are an NGO, make sure that your brand is established first and foremost before jumping into the mobile donation bandwagon.

The cause itself
Next comes the issue of the cause, how severe it is, how quickly donation is required, how long the mobile donation is open i.e. right now, for a week, open ended, monthly etc. need to be determined. For example, following a cyclone or a flood, or earthquakes (Haiti), donations are required as quickly as possible. Red Cross SMS appeal for Haiti raised $8M in 2 days as people were interested to get involved as quickly and as easily as possible. So the time taken to donate is extremely important, the shorter the time, the better it is. Other than natural calamities, entities such as Islamic Foundation can also consider how interested people can pay their zakaat or fitra during Eids (a religious cause in this case) through SMS based donations, assuming that the organisation meets the 1st criteria discussed earlier. However, its very unlikely that people will be interested enough to be involved in fundraising campaigns that go on endlessly. It can generate suspicion of corruption unless the NGO provides transparency on the movements of the SMS donation from ordinary donors.

Donation experience

When an ordinary donor is convinced about the authenticity and sympathised with the cause, its time to design the donation experience. You must be aware of the recent fundraising exercise by Jaago Foundation 'where a group of young boys and girls, clad in bright yellow tees, were seen thronging the roads in different parts of Dhaka city, selling flowers at red signals and talking to people in the vehicles. Not only was it a shock for commuters sitting in the traffic jam watching these young people in yellow Jaago Foundation tee shirts selling flowers, it was quite a pleasant surprise for them to watch these smiling youngsters trying to make a difference in their own little way.' So in this case the donation took place from the comfort of your car stuck in the never-moving traffic jams in Dhaka. The experience could also take place during concerts. Say Ayub Bachchu or James, urging a loyal strong 10000+ music revellers present during a concert against drug addiction, to donate 1 taka for 'Mukti' (the drug rehab center) so that youngters who are prone to drug abuse are warned and cared for. Events arranged by NGOs inviting various stakeholders during conferences, workshops are also good opportunities to lock in and ask for SMS donation from within the premises and during the events. Finally the amount to donate is extremely important too. Either a donor can be asked to settle for a monthly 1 taka donation, direct debited from the mobile credit or the donation amount can be open ended. Say to 2525 could deduct 10 taka from my account for the rehabilitation of the victims of Cyclone Nargis.

Follow up

Our NGOs are keen to keep the foreign donors happy with the hope of receiving fresh funds. All the monitoring and evaluation, impact assessment tools are designed to prove to the foreign donors how their money made a difference in the poor people's lives in Bangladesh. But if you are seeking to look for new donors in the domestic market through SMS based donations, you need to figure out your transparency framework for fund raised this way. Unless ordinary donors like students, housewives, service holders are not sure about the impact of their tiny (but important) donations, its likely that they will shy away from future calls to donate for any event whatsoever.

If Grameen Phone is one of the pioneers in facilitating mobile based financial services where we can pay electric bills, buy train tickets through SMS, then we are not far away from facilitating mobile based donations for social causes. This conversation would continue in next posts focusing on mobile based remittances, mobile banking for the poor, but in the meantime have a look at what others have done around, notably M-Pesa in Kenya, Obopay in India etc.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If only the government and opposition could stop renaming airports or storming out of parliament to pass the right regulations that would allow all these things...