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Social network aid for Africa? I’ll retweet to that

International aid organisations in the third sector have long been haunted by unfounded fears of accountability and effectiveness, but social media is beginning to break down these barriers by offering on the ground accountability over the internet.

The explosion of smartphone connectivity across Africa means that many more people are now online and able to interact with aid project organisers and volunteers, uploading videos and photos showing exactly how donations are improving living conditions and fighting poverty.

But as well as making visible how charities are aiding third world countries, social media is also helping forge huge networks of volunteers who can continue to maintain a personal connection with the people they support even once they’ve left the country.

I recently returned from a project in The Gambia, where I met with Jackie Church, founder of development organisation The Glove Project. The local team consists of dedicated staff along with visiting volunteers, many of whom have only heard of the group by scanning the Trip Advisor forum when preparing to visit the country. The charity cannot afford to produce billboards or full page advertising in the national press, so it has to rely on a team of unsung heroes who originally visited once and have since become heavily involved, revisiting the country several times.  These volunteers keep in touch online, using Facebook to co-ordinate fundraising efforts, engage donors and encourage visitors to The Gambia to explore some of the project’s villages.

But small projects such as this, which rely on micro-donations and a few committed supporters, are beginning to rapidly expand their footprint due to the rise in social media use across the continent and beyond. Awareness campaigns can easily be driven via a few tweets from visitors, uploading photos of the work achieved in villages, pushed through the numerous Twitter hash tags and popular Facebook groups.

Online forums have also created a buzz of activity, with users often only logging on before their holiday to pick up tips on the local culture, then finding themselves getting heavily involved in local aid work for the rest of their lives.

Africa may be an impoverished continent, but it is also a connected one. It is this growth in connectivity that will help improve aid co-ordination and offer visibility into how donations are transforming villages and saving lives.

Organisations in the third sector should look towards a new generation of connected volunteers, many of whom start their journey on a traditional holiday to a developing country, but end up working for good causes for the long term. Thanks to social media, I now have a long-term connection with everyone I worked with in The Gambia, and it’s a connection I hope will last forever.

Steven George-Hilley is director of technology at UK think tank Parliament Street