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A Case for the Cloud in the Developing World

by: Frank Schott, NetHope Interim President and Executive Director on 09/10/2013


For many years, it was thought that cloud solutions were out of reach for those working in the developing world. Because many organizations lack the basic connectivity that users would need to access their applications and data, it seemed improbable that it would catch on quickly. However, I’ve been struck by how quickly various innovations are coming together simultaneously making cloud solutions well within reach – and highly desirable – for most organizations working in the developing world today. With today’s announcement from Microsoft that Office 365 for Nonprofits is now available to NGOs worldwide as a donation, it’s likely to become even more appealing.

NetHope formed more than a decade ago as collaboration between several of the world’s largest international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Our focus has always been information and communications technologies (ICTs) and the role that they play in international development. The pace of ICT innovations in the developing world has accelerated dramatically over the past 10 years.   Today NetHope members include 39 of the world’s largest NGOs and all are making the move to cloud based solutions.

At NetHope, we’ve seen firsthand how cloud solutions like Office 365 are fast becoming game-changers. A few factors have made Office 365 and other applications like it viable and highly attractive to international development agencies.

  1. Broadband networks are becoming increasingly available and affordable thanks to undersea fiber optic cables in Latin America, Africa and South Asia. Inexpensive long distance wi-fi solutions extend fiber capabilities to rural communities. 
  2. Computing devices are getting cheaper, faster and more portable.
  3. Computer usage has gone mainstream—this is especially true for younger users.

Office 365 developers have done their part as well. Thanks to software innovations, Office 365 now works well when connectivity is temporarily unavailable, or what we call “periodically disconnected states.” Moreover, when Office 365 applications become reconnected, the applications and data are synchronizing in much more intelligent ways. Instead of full replications, only those changes that were made since that last time a user was connected will transfer across the network. For people in the developed world who experience this as a norm, it may not seem like a big deal. But for an occasionally connected NGO worker in the field, it’s fundamentally changing the way they work and making them more productive. 

What does cloud-based productivity software like Office 365 mean to an IT manager at an international development agency?  Ken Supersano, IT Director at Save the Children says it best. 

"Save the Children is the leading independent organization that creates real and lasting change for children in need in the United States and around the world. Save the Children was an early adopter and a proponent of cloud computing. Save the Children recognized the value of cloud computing in occasionally connected environments because of its reliability, redundancy, and availability. We learned that the offline capabilities of the technology allowed our dispersed work force to continue to communicate and compose email when offline and it only took minimal bandwidth to allow information to flow. The staff is able to access email from any internet connected device, be it laptop. tablet, or mobile phone, all with similar and familiar user experiences. The technology has been very efficient and has gotten even more so as Microsoft has built out their cloud infrastructures. It "just works" and that makes all the difference for those who are out working in the most challenging of environments on behalf of children in need. Tie that together with Microsoft's generous donation program, and our Agency benefits from state of the art communication technology and is able to re-direct precious funding into programs that directly impact children. Save the Children now has almost 15,000 mailboxes in Office 365 in 120 countries including the United States."

The benefits are clear. Let’s say you have offices in 60 countries in the developing world. And, let’s assume that you have three to four offices per country. That means you have to keep your IT environment operational and secure in about 200 locations, and keep in mind that many of those locations are in remote areas where it’s impractical to have a full-time IT support person. The more unmanaged servers, the more risk there is for viruses, general disrepair and down time. For many IT managers, it’s prohibitively expensive to maintain service levels in a traditional client server model. Cloud solutions like Office 365 are managed centrally in datacenters that have service up time in excess of 99 percent and have security and backup insurance that no single IT organization could ever achieve on its own. The cost to operate and maintain mission critical IT capabilities comes down dramatically with solutions like Office 365. And for international NGOs, that's money saved to reinvest in programs that advance their core missions.