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The hidden world of aid

22 Jan 2013 Voices

A recent trip to The Gambia revealed to Steven George-Hilley a hidden network of people who met, kept in touch and delivered aid through social media channels.

Sunkary is one of the beneficiaries of the Glove Project

A recent trip to The Gambia revealed to Steven George-Hilley a hidden network of people who met, kept in touch and delivered aid through social media channels.

We all know that the tidal wave of social media tools has helped connect millions of people all over the world, allowing users to interact seamlessly at the touch of the button. Some of the most prominent campaigns have been fuelled by social media, to the extent that campaigns are now regularly front-loaded for social media. But these networks, which can be found in the most surprising places, also provide untold support to smaller charities, which have found a new way to thrive in difficult financial circumstances.

The true value of the impact social media has on fundraising projects was demonstrated to me during a recent visit to The Gambia, where I worked with the Glove Project, an organisation which works to improve local villages through a mixture of aid and enterprise. The project is part-funded via a tour company called Tilly’s Tours, which employs local people to manage, plan and organise trips for visitors to the Gambian villages. This ensures a regular flow of tourists who meet with the local people and purchase goods which have been created from the tools and training provided by the Glove Project. This system delivers a level of sustainable aid and regular financial support to the Gambian villages, which benefit from regular influx of visitors, many of whom become volunteers.

It's impressive. But what’s most surprising about this initiative is the way it recruits volunteers through social media. Many of the volunteers who visited the village on my trip had met or heard about the project and its action team through the Trip Advisor travel forum. Interestingly, several of the people who attended the project were originally searching the forum for travel advice and tourist tips, when they stumbled across Gambia’s hidden army of voluntary aid workers and decided to get involved. Logon to the forum, and you can see a hive of activity and discussion between volunteers that use it to encourage visitors and engage donors to the project through links and websites designed to encourage traditional holiday-makers to get involved.

Driving connections with the individual beneficiary

The explosion of mobile devices across Africa means that more and more people are able to connect, communicate and coordinate aid projects in countries like The Gambia from the source around the world. Despite a lack of resources and millionaire backers, people working in even the most remote areas can support their own development directly. Messages from the individual beneficiaries strengthen the support from overseas advocates and allow for a level of constant engagement from existing volunteers, encouraging a lasting connection to the cause.

Once a central portal for tourists doing their homework ahead of a much deserved holiday, online forums such as Trip Advisor now serve as a platform for connecting the next generation of aid workers. Online experiences are unlocking the inner, often undiscovered philanthropists of tomorrow, by inspiring and encouraging more people into aid work.

Steven George-Hilley is director of technology at Parliament Street, a newly-formed UK think tank



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