NGOs and the ITU

ITU-D Study Group 2 Question 10g/2

Enhancing the Capacity of NGOs to achieve Development Aims, through the use of Telecommunication

Executive Summary

The Question

Increasingly, development efforts in less and least developed countries are being led by national and international NGOs, recognised by governments, the UN system and others as key actors. Some are directly involved in media (e.g. community radio and television, development video, telecentres); others use telecommunication to achieve their aims (e.g. aid agencies, training and educational initiatives, local economic initiatives etc.); while others still are generally aware of the important role of telecommunication but have yet to come to grips with the issues and possibilities.

There is a danger that many opportunities to enhance development using telecommunication are being lost, because of lack of awareness of potential especially of new technologies, lack of coordination between NGOs, national authorities and private sector, (often unintended) obstacles in national and international broadcasting policy and telecommunication regulation, and even poorly designed international standards that impede appropriate technologies.

This is the final report of the ITU-D Focus Group constituted at the Malta WTDC in 1998 to examine these problems in the hope that the solutions identified will significantly increase the capacity of NGOs to achieve their development aims, through the use of telecommunication and information technologies.

The formal question addressed by the Focus Group was Study Group 2, Question 10g/2:

"What is the actual and potential impact of current telecommunication trends on the activities of development NGOs (non-government organisations), and what policies and actions can enhance their capacity to utilise telecommunication more effectively to achieve development aims?"


NGO Strategic use of Telecommunications

In its deliberations, and based on written submissions received, the Focus Group concludes, not surprisingly, that NGOs are making strategic use of telecommunications in order to:
  • improve their efficiency and sustainability;
  • enhance the impact of their development actions;
  • empower target sectors by increasing their ability to participate in the public sphere (e.g. by facilitating access to telecommunications tools).

Difficulties and Barriers

In submissions to the Focus Group, NGOs identified a number of immediate barriers and strategic longer term concerns. Some of these affect NGOs' ability to optimise their use of telecommunications, while others may have long-reaching impact on the media environment and the potential for NGOs to contribute to development efforts in the less and least developed countries.

These barriers and concerns include, among others:

  • the high cost of access to the internet, especially in the less and least developed countries and especially in remote and rural areas;
  • the absence of local and relevant content and content in local languages;
  • specific obstacles to telecommunication use encountered by women, despite the fact that they are more and more recognised as the critical factor in development;
  • delays and obstacles for issuing licenses and permissions to use radio frequencies, even in moments of humanitarian crisis;
  • the difficulties faced by NGOs seeking access to radio and television broadcast frequencies and to international satellite spectrum;
  • the increased concentration of media ownership and the growing influence of a commercial imperative on the internet;
  • procedures for adopting new telecommunication standards that do not take the needs of community and NGO media into account;
  • the continued presence of telecommunications monopolies and the lack of an appropriate policy and regulatory framework in many countries;
  • universal service policies that are motivated by limited objectives, that do not take into account questions of quality or affordability of service, and that do not provide adequate service for health care, education and other social purposes;
  • the difficulties faced by NGOs attempting to manoeuvre in the increasingly important but unfamiliar and complex waters of international regulation, frequency allocation and technical standard setting;
  • the general lack of dialogue between NGOs and the ITU.



The report's recommendations are variously addressed to NGOs, ITU members, and to the ITU Development Sector.
The Focus Group recognises that NGOs at all levels could benefit from more consideration of the implications of telecommunication and information technologies. However, the wide chasm between the strategic level of knowledge internationally on telecommunication, and the realities faced by NGOs on the ground, lead us to conclude that it is international NGOs and NGO networks that must take the initiative. They are the filters, upwards and downwards, between the global and local levels.

The report calls on NGOs to urgently embark on an initiative to build the sector's capacity regarding international telecommunication and media issues. Such an initiative, could gather, analyse and disseminate information on emerging technologies and issues related to the telecommunications, information technology, and media, translating into forms that relate to the realities and capacities of NGOs.

The report recognises that NGOs have limited 'discretionary' funding for this kind of activity and concludes that it will be necessary, in the short-term, to seek donor support. However, it also observes that the changes associated with convergence are so far-reaching that the NGO sector must begin to view the costs of participating in telecommunications projects, debates and governance bodies - for themselves and their client groups - as essential rather than discretionary.

ITU Government Members
The Focus Group recognises that many ITU government members are currently reviewing their policy framework and regulatory structures as a result of ongoing liberalisation of telecommunications and of the rapid technological change being experienced by the sector. The Focus Group recommends that this review be undertaken by all governments in order to establish a policy framework for the incorporation of development NGO needs.

This policy framework should give particular attention to encouraging community and NGO media as an essential component of a pluralist media environment. It should also recognise that appropriate levels of access are defined by a constantly shifting set of goalposts that must take into account, among other things, how telecommunications are used by NGOs to achieve development ends. Most importantly, this policy framework must be undertaken in a transparent and cooperative environment that seeks to actively involve NGOs and their development agendas.

ITU Private Sector Members
The main recommendation of the Focus Group for the private sector members is that they be open to actively engage in a dialogue. There is a tremendous potential for cooperation and for joint initiatives. NGOs are increasingly responsible for delivering public services such as health and education that have traditionally been provided by governments. This means that NGOs are becoming more important as clients, but because they do not work in the same way as government, the private sector will have to adapt to new ways of working.
ITU Development Sector
This report is the conclusion of a phase in ITU/NGO relations initiated by NGOs five years ago. It has been important in that we have learned that both the ITU and NGOs are willing to work together in a positive way. We believe that it is now time for the ITU to take the initiative and we propose that the ITU Development Sector establish a Task Force on ITU/NGO Cooperation. Based on our findings, we believe that its mandate should be to examine the following proposals:
  1. Special membership category in ITU-D for development oriented NGOs.
  2. A single liaison point within ITU for NGOs to receive and send information, and establish contact.
  3. NGOs to be afforded recognition in meetings, on registration forms, protocols etc.
  4. Consultation with NGOs on the proposed World Summit on the Information Society, and how NGOs can relate to this process.
  5. A section of the ITU Journal devoted to NGOs.
  6. NGO representation on advisory and consultative groups within ITU, including the Telecommunication Development Advisory Group (TDAG).
  7. Determination of the main issues of relevance to NGOs within the context of ITU-R and ITU-T, and particularly with regard to areas in which ITU recommendations apply. These might include:
  • Spectrum planning issues for development and community needs;
  • Impact of new radio and telecommunications standards on NGOs;
  • Mechanisms for consultation with NGOs on standards and spectrum planning as well as on issues such as universal access definitions;
  • Measures to assist NGOs to adapt to new developments in telecommunications.
This Task Force could be set up under the ITU Development Sector, reporting to the TDAG. It should comprise NGOs, Member States and Sector members. It must be appropriately resourced, in terms of technical assistance and other requirements.