Ottawa NGO thinks local, goes global

UN’s millennium development goals
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When world leaders converged on the United Nations last week to talk about what must be done to achieve the UN’s millennium development goals, Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn’t alone in stressing the need for “accountability” and “real results.” In trying to keep donor countries committed to the targets for dramatically reducing global poverty by 2015, the UN is battling skepticism fostered by frequent reports of funding being siphoned off by corrupt regimes or wasted in stopgap programs.

Only a few days after the conference in New York City, the MasterCard Foundation was in Ottawa touting a $5-million donation to a little-known Canadian group that’s pursuing a strategy that seems to avoid those foreign-aid pitfalls. Founded in 2001, Digital Opportunity Trust hires university graduate “interns” in developing countries, and puts them to work close to home teaching their skills in information and communications technology to potential small-scale entrepreneurs. “The communities they go into are the communities where they’re from,” says DOT founder Janet Longmore. “The critical thing was to make it locally owned.”

Longmore says relying on local talent and ideas has helped DOT grow fast, to about 400 interns in 11 countries, from Lebanon to Ethiopia, overseen by a small staff in Ottawa. (The group also runs programs to bring technology to schools.) The $5 million from MasterCard is earmarked to allow DOT to hire 500 interns to foster IT-based entrepreneurship in Kenya and Rwanda—everything from crafts co-operatives and artists creating websites, to community newspapers and small-scale tourism operators going online. It’s a path to self-sufficiency that’s attracting attention—and serious money—from donors looking for alternatives to old-style development assistance.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the MasterCard Foundation as U.S.-based. In fact, it is headquartered in Toronto.