Discussion of results of a study of Internet use among NGOs
(Internet fait-il avancer la démocratie? Discussion à propos des résultats d’une étude sur les usages d’Internet parmi les ONG)
11 / 1997
I found strong evidence that users in NGOs perceive computer-mediated communication (CMC)to be a useful tool to promote information exchange and collaboration between partners who share common interests and concerns. CMC is perceived to provide fast and inexpensive communication, offering better information in terms of quantity and quality, and bringing partners with similar interests closer together. Information about what others are doing is felt to provide inspiration and ideas, and a feeling of community with partners in other countries that would not be possible without CMC. Nonetheless, collective actions and exchanges are not completely independent of geographic location. It is noteworthy that in the context I have studied, the virtual communities of interest with partners in other countries seem to be far more solid than with partners within the same country. Relations with other NGOs in the country seem to take place primarily through other media such as the phone, fax, and personal meetings. In addition, as I have discussed before, there are different perceptions about the existence of a national virtual community of NGOs, and the role of COLNODO, an alternative service provider dedicated to the needs of NGOs in the country plays an important role. Users who have a supportive attitude toward their service provider tend to have a stronger perception of a local community of NGOs sharing an electronic forum, while more critical users are generally more weakly attached to it. It is possible that supportive users long for a local community of NGOs, and their perception of it on the virtual arena of COLNODO is, as one respondent put it, a nostalgic exaggeration. Further elaborating on the concept of ’’nostalgia of community,’’ this respondent pointed out that NGO activists were generally nostalgic of the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1970s and 1980s, and longed for the sense of belonging to the collective dream of a new society that was widespread then. With the globalization of neo-liberalism and the defeat of the revolutionary dream, these activists have found refuge in NGOs and have turned to civil society as a new arena for political change. It would seem supportive users of COLNODO, as I have described them, would be more prone to this nostalgic longing for a virtual community of NGOs in the country. Internationally, the nostalgia of community may be a less important ingredient to conform communities of interest. CMC is perceived to strengthen information exchange, to give users access to more information and to allow them better relations with their partners who share common interests, especially in other countries. We could argue that these constitute positive contributions of CMC to strengthen democratic communication and the participation of civil society. But once again, the link between the concrete experience and perceptions of the users and the more abstract notions of democratic communication and civil society need to be further explored. It would be presumptuous to say that only NGOs represent civil society. Clearly, civil society includes many other sectors of society, outside of the realms of the economy and of government, and it is not a homogeneous and conflict-free aggregate of institutions in pursuit of a common goal. Nonetheless, NGOs have been able to participate in international meetings and conferences more effectively with CMC, and the extent to which other sectors of civil society have been able to increase their participation in international fora is unclear. By now it is clear that users or CMC in NGOs perceive it as a tool that is promotes information sharing and communication exchanges between partners who share common interests and concerns in other countries. Partners from far away have been brought closer together, and more continuous, inexpensive and flexible contacts and exchanges make them part of a virtual community of interests, something that would be far more difficult without CMC. Even though NGOs do not limit themselves to communicating with other NGOs, NGOs do constitute the privileged partners in these exchanges ; other partners include universities, donors, international and research institutions, and governments.
Based on the findings of this study, it is not possible to affirm that NGOs’ use of CMC strengthens development and democracy, or for the same reasons, that it is detrimental to it. But assuming-and this can be a major assumption for many- just assuming that the work of NGOs is actually contributing to strengthen democratization and people’s development, we can argue that an improved use of CMC can indirectly help to improve NGOs’ contributions to them. In other words, by making better use of CMC resources, NGOs can be in a better position to invigorate their involvement in advancing development and democracy. CMC use in an NGO can not and will not, in itself, strengthen development and democracy. What CMC can do is provide useful tools to further the organization’s pre-existing involvement in activities that strengthen development and democracy in a given context. Despite the above, the results of this study do not support the views that NGOs have a strong feeling of belonging to a global community of NGOs and civil society, or a sense of collective mission to confront the challenges of the 21st century, contrary to much of the current literature on the subject. There is no common perception of what such challenges may be, or how to confront them in novel ways in the years to come. The transnationalization of civil participation, the process of globalization from below, may be inspiring thoughts, "technospeak" in the words of one critic of an early draft of this work, but remain closer to wishful thinking, than to felt perceptions on the part of the actual users of CMC in the NGOs I studied.
This text is part of a larger study on the uses of computer-mediated communication in Latin America.
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