Monthly Archives: August 2010

Software for NGOs with an undersized budget

Since over 4 years I am struggling with the contradiction between a Central-East European, absolutely-non-profit budget and the need to work efficiently, to present ourselves as professionally as possible and to keep software security in a good shape. This a particularly tricky job where private contributions to office running costs are even lower than the local bank charges, which you pay both for holding the account and for every incoming money transfer and which are extra high for charities. It probably goes without saying that software and Web administration are increasingly rejected by donors as budget items in projects, which are requested to be tightly goal oriented, understaffed and cost efficient and which are supposed to promote the donor’s brand.

IT work is of a kind that is well done if you don’t see it. I have experienced, however, countless nerve-wracking problems with inaccessible pages and countless breakdowns after updates, and many of them were caused by my stupidity. In fact, if you decide to run your own NGO without the budget for a webmaster, you need to allocate at least ten or twenty hours per week for installation, updating and in-house service, and easily more.

Better safe than sorry. I know. But we cannot afford to have a duplicate web site where we thoroughly test updates in a sand-box before doing “the real thing” on our production site. We simply have to take the risk that, as a worst case scenario, visitors will see for 5 or 10 minutes a horrible error message, while I am returning the system into the state before the unfortunate update.

Taken to the extreme, non-profit means to cope with these and similar flaws all of the time. There is no way out unless you can pay for it.

When I read the manuals and discussion forums of software, both proprietary and free, I quite often come across remarks like: “If you don’t get it working on your cheap provider, simply migrate to a better one”. Or: “Go to your local computer store and upgrade your hardware”. Well, it’s not that easy if you have just spent your last coins for printing 50 leaflets that you desperately need on your next public event. And, after all, yes, you also need some spare money for your lunch tomorrow.

You will have to learn how to operate with moderate means. Don’t expect wonders, but you will survive. You can consider yourself successful when people don’t notice that you do your Web all alone as self-taught volunteer.

Sometimes I stumble upon places where you find recommendations specifically for non-profit users. But still, most of them were written in North America and West or North Europe and they assume that your supporters are able and willing to pay a membership contribution, that technology is affordable with average NGO-incomes, that you have 20 hours per week of free time to fine-tune the code and that companies in your town grew up in a tradition of corporate responsibility. I personally often feel too disillusioned (or should I say: embarrassed?) to reveal that our organization cannot even afford a super cheap 50$ non-profit subscription, let alone the offer from one company in reply to my request: They have decided, they wrote me, to support our good work by offering their software with 50% discount, hence reducing the price to only 200€. With sincere thanks I have had to reject.

So back to the roots. And if you are a bunch of inveterate optimists and don’t want to steal software (even though society often takes your work and “forgets” to pay for it) you have to resort to free software.

I have started here to write down my experiences and try to extract some advices. Hopefully they will help my fellow volunteers out there to avoid the same mistakes and to make their lives easier. Even though we work for free, it doesn’t mean we have time to waste.

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For a change, engage with the engaged

A quote worth being noted by many Western institutions and governments, not excluding the European Commission:

No government or local or external actor can claim to support genuine democratic change while disengaging from dissidents at best and quietly undermining them at worst.
It is, however, dissidents—monks, civilians, student activists, labor activists, ex-army men, ethnic resistance fighters and so on—who have risked life and limb to keep their uphill battle for real change going against all odds and pressurize the paranoid regime by their mere existence and their refusal to capitulate.
If dissidents didn’t matter why would the regime keep several thousands of these citizens locked up and push thousands more into permanent exile?
Building the capacity of Burma’s so-called civil society and the presence of humanitarian INGOs are valuable and to be welcomed, but neither is a substitute for a political struggle.

Read the full commentary/analysis here: Six Reasons to Welcome US Support for War Crimes Probe

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a different kind of culture shock

so i’ve lived in quite a few countries on several continents and at various levels of development. i consider myself flexible and able to adapt to different ways of life. but having just visited burmese families recently resettled in the czech republic, i realized something: i am used to adapting downward, to doing without certain conveniences or luxuries. but never have i had to adapt upward, figuring out systems or technologies that i’ve never encountered before. and this in a foreign language. the average north american expat has a tendency to complain when unable to find someone who speaks english in a local department store or government office – but what if your native language is burmese? zero chance of finding someone who can help you in your own language.

most expats try to learn the local language when they are living in a given country, but usually have english to fall back on (even if it’s their second or third language). but for the burmese families that have just arrived here via either malaysia or a thai refugee camp, the challenge is twofold: learning enough czech to get by in a small town (where the asylum seekers’ integration centre is located), and learning how to use such wonders as public transportation systems or electrical appliances.

and that’s just the beginning…after six months in the integration center the adult refugees will need to find jobs, while the children and teens will start school – in czech. i know i had enough worries at school with also having a language barrier to deal with! and english speakers are extremely lucky to always be able to fall back on teaching english when they need a job; most burmese refugees in the czech republic start out with manual labour.

during our visit last week to the newly arrived burmese families, we shared with them a short documentary film produced by BCP, to try to give them an idea of what to expect during the resettlement and adjustment process here in the czech republic. the film will soon be available for public viewing, if you’d like to get a better understanding of the whole process from the point of view of the refugees, NGOs, and the government. watch this space! in the mean time, you can check out our other short films at

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Learning from students: Czech-Burmese mentorship

“Insufficient resources, a lack of proper identification and a need for further professional training are just a few of the deficiencies that Mizzima and its staff are forced to confront on a regular basis.”

This quote, taken from the article Who knows what the day may bring, describes some of the problems faced by Burmese exile media who have set up headquarters just behind the frontier, yet still inside the danger zone. Since the film Burma VJ has swept through film festivals and reaped an Oscar nomination, the self-sacrificing work of clandestine journalists in Burma has found its due recognition. Few people realize, however, that these undercover correspondents need to have a base in a safer country that enables them to work.

But how safe is a country that is safer than Burma? Even if an organization existed solely on the Internet, how protected could it be?

A heck of a hack

While the Internet was originally designed in such a way as to make it the least vulnerable to military attacks on particular nodes, it still seems to be quite easy to turn off specific critical web servers, for example by hacking the site or, if you cannot get access, by creating an avalanche of fake visitors so that the server will break down or take the site offline for its own protection. This form of attack is comparable easy, since all you need to do is to hijack a huge number of ordinary computers that are insufficiently secured.

Herdict on Burma

Why send the crackers 'round when it's easier to block access to a critical site? This chart compiles user submitted accessibility reports from Burma. Source:

These scenarios have repeatedly occurred to Burmese exile media such as the Irrawaddy, the DVB, and the New Era magazine. If you cannot afford huge servers around the globe, you have to resort to guerrilla tactics by reappearing at a new place whenever a site has been stamped out by brute cyber-force. Attacks like these should make us rethink our conviction that the vast virtual landscapes of the Net constitute a safe place for citizen engagement. Domination on the Web does not only materialize through huge corporations, controlling privacy and infrastructure; it can also mean to target disliked critics. This cyber war is led without faces, by “rogue hackers” hired from the anonymity of the Internet. Cyber hitmen don’t kill their victims. They zero them.

The Internet, however, has hinted a possible solution to us: Similar to the infrastructure, content can also be multiplied and redistributed, and every node is made redundant. If you search the Web, you will find a huge number of blogs and discussion groups about Burma: in English, in Burmese, in Burma’s ethnic languages. Burmese migrants have instinctively established networks as form of resistance, which are too messy to be controlled by a single force.

Of course, the face of journalism is changing when everyone can have his or her own blog and reproduce information with the dynamics of rumors. The ubiquitous availability of media technology requires the formation and adaptation of skills. Remember the dawning of the video cam, when the cheapness of material brought about long screenings of deadly boring films.

Two-way teaching in a mutual mentorship

Expertise online: Don't ask me. Ask Mizzima.

Many projects for developing countries have attracted criticism for following a top-down approach. In order to avoid these pitfalls, we have designed our project from an early stage of planning together with our on-site project partner Burma Centre Delhi. Activists, grassroots workers, and journalists from the exile community have a lot of experience to share, and only they know the situation both inside their country and in their present homelands.

When we plan to transfer expert knowledge to Burmese exile media, we therefore seek to use this opportunity to increase awareness among Czech and Indian journalists. For those who will go to India to exile media it will mean the same thing as for their Burmese counterparts: They will have to learn from their students. It is not an internship, it is a mutual mentorship.

We have selected the mentors from a choice of applicants whose high quality and past engagement made it difficult to reject anyone. I won’t tell you more about them for the moment. Soon enough, they will have their say in their own words.

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Burma Center Prague: ready for the future

We have received the news that our web site has been archived by the Czech National Library. The condition for being accepted in the archive is that the content be considered relevant for preservation.

In the Web Archive’s words:

This website has been chosen by the National Library of the Czech Republic as a quality resource to be preserved for the future and become part of the Czech cultural heritage. It is archived several times a year and its record is included in the Czech National Bibliography and the National Library catalogue.

We are grateful and proud that we are able to contribute our share to the Czech cultural heritage and, aware of our responsibility, will continue to deliver best services drawing from our local support and helping the people of Burma.

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Blue monkeys, happy tigers and a white elephant

Burma has made it on the news agenda again.

No, it is not about the call by Human Rights Watch for the EU to support an inquiry into war crimes in Burma, nor the complaint of a Burmese pro-democracy party about intimidation by security authorities, and don’t even think about the Burmese refugee girls being almost gang-raped in India.

A journalist has told me recently in an interview (in one of the rare occasions where the journalist is the one being interviewed) that stories are either interesting or important, and that it is the journalists’ job to make important stories interesting.

So, let’s have a look then at what is interesting and maybe even considered important about Burma these days.

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Kyrgyzstan vs. Burma: 1-0

I just came across an interesting news report:

The Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva has launched what is hoped to be the first free election for a parliamentary republic in Central Asia, when she signed a decree setting the date for 10 October.

Here is something that Burmese leaders can learn about speed and precision. While the junta still leaves it up to rumors to convey the date of 10/10/2010 – absurdly considered an auspicious number by the anti-Christian leaders, even though these dates stem from Western culture and are calculated after Christ’s birth – the Kyrgyz people have simply made a decree and set the date.

In Burma, the pseudo-democratic elections might as well be in December. Or next year.

The only clear thing I can discover in the obscure matter of Burma’s upcoming elections is the junta’s message:

What does it matter anyway?

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Hypocritical engagement

China’s, Thailand’s and India’s engagement in Burma, aptly put in a cartoon:

by Harn Lay,

by Harn Lay,

When forced to choose priorities, some people reveal their inhuman faces.

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