Charity begins on the World Wide Web

Aid agencies are turning to hi-tech.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Following the lead set by academics, businesses and publishers, charities are at last jumping on the Internet bandwagon. The One World Broadcasting Trust, a British charity established with the remit of linking the worlds of development and broadc astinghas set up a new World Wide Web site called "One World On-line" (http://www.bbcnc.org.uk.)

Initiated by the trust's director, and founder of BBC's Everyman, Peter Armstrong, the site was launched in London on 24 January by its patron, Terry Waite. Other partners in the venture are the BBC's Networking Club and the Overseas Development Administration (ODA).

The new Web site offers news, features, analysis and conference reports about developing-world issues, much of which will be contributed by charities. It is also aimed at the casual browser, with transcripts and screen stills from television programmes and a gallery of colour pictures by Mark Edwards, a photo-journalist specialising in Third World issues.

Anuradha Vittachi, who is editing One World On-line after a stint at the helm of New Internationalist, says it is aimed at everybody with an interest in development issues, particularly non-governmental organisations, journalists, academics, and teachers. Hypertext links to related documents mean that background material is immediately accessible.

Ms Vittachi feels her position to be different from that of commissioning editor: she now feels able to collaborate with, and listen to, her contributors. Her main concern is the volume of incoming information. Charities are moving slowly towards the goal of submitting their contributions in HTML, the hypertext mark-up language needed if users are to be able to jump from one page to another at the click of a mouse; in the meantime, however, documents must be translated into the appropriate formats and pictures digitised by the new organisation's four staff. There is no editorial board or policy as yet; a consultative meeting of the members in March may create one.

Opinions on the venture from contributing charities are positive. "A wonderful initiative," said Save the Children; Unicef is equally excited. They both see the site as a good means of publicising their causes and hope primarily to reach "journalists andopinion formers," according to Mark Slide of Action Aid.

But the venture is still experimental; although use of the Web site will be easy to measure, reports of its impact will not be forthcoming for several months. The charities are not worried by the fact that few opinion formers have the technical expertiseto use the Web: they feel optimistic that the rapid spread of Internet popularity will result in an ever growing readership.

But will the people who live in the developing world ever get to peer through this electronic window on to their lives? A lack of available technology and resources makes this unlikely. On the face of it, this is a major barrier to One World On-Line's philosophy of free information available to all. Despite this, Ms Vittachi is convinced of its beneficial effects. "At least," she said, "it offers people in the developing world a voice: they can send information in and know that their potential audience could run to millions worldwide."

The spirit of optimism and momentum associated with this project is infectious, but tough decisions will have to be taken at the March meeting. The undisclosed cost of the project has been underwritten by the ODA but extra funding will be required for expansion.

One proposal is for contributors to pay a subscription fee; Peter Armstrong is adamant that the free-for-users philosophy will remain intact. It is refreshing to see charities, traditionally low-tech in their approach, using the Web and the Internet - and particularly at a time when both are being increasingly commercialised.

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