Cheap, fast and democratic, e-mail is proving the perfect tool for charities working in the Third World, says Paul Gosling

Charities and other non-governmental organisations are increasingly relying on e-mail as the cheapest and most reliable means of maintaining contact with fieldworkers and partners in the Third World.

Christian Aid, which does a lot of work in Latin America and Africa, where phonelines are poor and electricity supplies irregular, finds e- mail more reliable than either faxes or telephone links. And now Oxfam, along with many other charities, is setting up e-mail links with its overseas workers and partners.

For Greenpeace, which has used it for seven years, e-mail has two main advantages. By avoiding paper, it is more environmentally sustainable and more appropriate for an environmental pressure group. And communication is quicker and therefore more democratic, allowing member groups in 30 countries to react quickly to proposed initiatives. "I doubt if we could exist without it now," a spokesman says.

Amnesty International is increasingly dependent on e-mail to communicate with 100 partner organisations worldwide. Speed and democracy are factors for Amnesty, as is the ease with which a single report can be sent out to such a large number of groups.

Amnesty has also experimented with the electronic distribution of material that would otherwise be banned. A report on human rights violations in Indonesia was earlier this year published on the Internet. "We found that the documents were downloaded in Indonesia, carried round by disk, printed out, and translated into Bahasa Indonesia within a week," explains Ray Mitchell, Amnesty's electronic publishing co-ordinator. "It got round censorship; the Indonesian government would not have been happy if we had taken the documents in as books." Amnesty will have to examine the implications for income generation before deciding whether to repeat the process.

Christian Aid says that partner countries are often more used to e-mail than are people in Britain; there is a high level of IT literacy in Somalia and Latin America. GreenNet, used by many of the NGOs, operates a system of cross-subsidy, to reduce bills to Third World partners.

Graham Lane, head of Amnesty's IT section, says: "The great advantage of e-mail is the speed of accessing and processing information. Information can be very quickly reworked according to the needs, and sent out again to international offices in other countries. We use it for discussions; and when we are sending information to a large audience, it is very cost- effective.

"E-mail makes us more efficient. We have a Spanish translation unit, and they often have to translate material for conferences without knowing if it is all needed. They could not phone round all the offices to ask if they needed to translate everything. When all the participants are on e-mail, they can have group participation to make sure all important information is made available."