Assessing whether to use SMS is even more important than figuring out how to do it, as Joshua Pepall, World Vision’s United Kingdom Senior Accountability Advisor in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, reports in a special guest blog post. Improved accountability to communities and value for money are hot topics for World Vision and for the UK Department for International Development (DFID), which funds the accountability for development pilot that l support in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Accountability and quality assurance guidelines like the Humanitarian Accountability Project (HAP) and INGO (International NGO) Accountability Charters highlight the need for agencies to effectively provide accurate and timely information to communities on project plans and activities. Doing this is not always easy.
World Vision development projects work through area development programmes (ADPs). ADP Catchment areas can be made up of dozens of villages, hundreds of households and thousands of people. A real challenge for World Vision staff is how to effectively communicate programme information to community members quickly, cheaply and effectively. Organising a meeting can take days and may not the best use of people’s time, or represent good value for money. Using SMS to provide basic information on project activities and to coordinate community engagement events seemed like one solution.
Mobile phone usage in Cambodia is remarkably high - everyone seems to have a phone. Judging by the number of people that own two or three, owning multiple phones is somewhat of a status symbol as well. Phones are relatively affordable here - a Chinese 3G phone can cost as little as $60 while a basic Nokia is as little as $18. Some estimates put the number of mobile phones registered in Cambodia at 13 million (BubbleCom, 2012). Nine mobile phone operators have invested heavily in mobile phone infrastructure and there is almost total coverage across the country.
It’s easy to get excited by new technology like FrontlineSMS, and start using it before listening to the people who will receive the information and give them the opportunity to decide if SMS is their preferred communications channel.
Effective information provision to communities of project information requires careful planning - you need to identify who your community audience is, and target your approach to that audience. Luckily, we had the flexibility and time to do this.
Our national and World Vision UK teams developed a simple community assessment questionnaire designed to learn more about community mobile phone usage, the cost of SMS and cell cards, phone ownership and the kind of information people wanted from World Vision.
We learnt a lot. Some of our assumptions were also challenged. Age did not seem to be the big obstacle to mobile phone use as we had anticipated and even the poorest village community members had phones and used SMS. People also wanted to use SMS to report issues of domestic violence in the communities to World Vision staff. Potentially, Frontline SMS might be able to be used for a variety of applications and not only to send information.
Rather than compile a big report about the assessment we set ourselves the challenge of communicating the results in one page - the infographic on the left.
So what next? We’re still SMS novices and learning as we go. We will be trialling the use of Frontline SMS in one village to send SMS to households on the date and time of community meetings and project information. By starting small we hope to learn what works and does not. By getting some wins under our belt we hope to then roll it out to other ADPs.