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Use of Free/Libre and Open Source Software by International Non-Government Organizations
Analysis of the IT decision process in the INGO of using FOSS
== Table of Contents ==

[#__RefHeading__1632_1961796907 1.Executive summary1]

[#__RefHeading__1634_1961796907 2.International NGO [INGO] and Free and Open Source Software [FOSS]3]

[#__RefHeading__1262_698504672 2.1.INGO definition and particularities3]

[#__RefHeading__1636_1961796907 2.2.FOSS presentation4]

[#__RefHeading__1638_1961796907 2.2.1.FOSS movement4]

[#__RefHeading__1264_698504672 as freedom for users5]

[#__RefHeading__1266_698504672 Source, the new organizational model6]

[#__RefHeading__1268_698504672 debate about Free/Libre and/or Open Source7]

[#__RefHeading__1640_1961796907 2.2.2.The open source way and economic model7]

[#__RefHeading__1642_1961796907 a user's perspective9]

[#__RefHeading__1644_1961796907 2.2.3.LibreOffice9]

[#__RefHeading__1646_1961796907 and functionality10]

[#__RefHeading__1648_1961796907 2.2.4.The OpenDocument format10]

[#__RefHeading__1650_1961796907 2.2.5.Some FOSS designed for the international cooperation/humanitarian sector11]



[#__RefHeading__1656_1961796907 2.3.Match between INGO and FOSS11]

[#__RefHeading__1658_1961796907 2.3.1.In terms of values11]

[#__RefHeading__1660_1961796907 2.3.2.In terms of values, costs and policy (“vendor lock-in”)11]

[#__RefHeading__1662_1961796907 2.3.3.Organizational impact of using FOSS12]

[#__RefHeading__1664_1961796907 3.FOSS awareness and IT decision mechanism12]

[#__RefHeading__1666_1961796907 3.1.Lack of FOSS awareness by the INGO managers12]

[#__RefHeading__1668_1961796907 3.2.IT decision making process in the INGO12]

[#__RefHeading__1670_1961796907 4.Recommendations12]

[#__RefHeading__1672_1961796907 5.Conclusions12]= Executive summary = International NGO [INGO][1] are usually modern organizations having an heavy use of modern technologies and in particular IT technologies[2]. INGO have also become significant international actors, in particular for the countries where they operate[3] and their non-profit mission come along with numerous side effects. To insert the link to the IFRC about “left behind” concept.

One of them is the dissemination of IT solutions they are using in the underdeveloped countries where they operate.

In terms of IT solutions, Free and Open Source Software [FOSS][4] have become interesting alternatives. They are often cheaper, more secure, more stable and customizable. But behind those financial and technical aspects, FOSS also offers intangible benefits. They share common values with the non-profit sectors (to be detailed later) and are the results of collaborative processes by loosely organized communities[5], making them naturally fit for organizations working in net (decentralized, in collaboration with others, etc.).

For all those reasons, there is a general acceptance that INGO should privilege FOSS over proprietary solutions[6]. But despite this and the fact that there are some very interesting projects and many viable alternatives, most of the INGO are still using proprietary solutions on their working stations and often on their servers. This is particularly the case for the office suite on which this paper will focus.

It is understood that migration to FOSS is not an obvious, neither an easy endeavour, both from the technical aspect (features, migration process, etc.) and financial one. Still, there are many successful stories, especially by various European administrations, that demonstrate that those difficulties can be overcome in most of the cases.

The objective of this document is not to study the technical or financial aspects of the migration, but rather the IT decision making process and confirm the following explanation for the poor adoption of FOSS by INGO:

FOSS are not commercial products that supposes a customer (passive)/provider relationship, but community projects requiring commitment from all the members, including the end users. To decide to migrate to FOSS implies the adoption of this project by the organization and its members and a very different, more active way to manage it.

For that reason, but also because of the deep links between FOSS and the INGO sectors, the decision to migrate to FOSS is not only technical, but also strategic. It is a decision that will indirectly improve the matching between the management of organization and its core values and that will impact on the identity of the organization. Such decision must be taken and assumed by the top management.

However, due to its misconception of FOSS, the top management is not involved in the IT debate and do not actively participate in the IT decision making process. And at the same time, the persons in charge of the IT departments are not in a position and/or willing to make such decision by themselves.

All those factors together result to the fact that despite the many reasons to push for FOSS migration, the movement is very slow and opportunities are lost.

A parallel can be drawn with the gender issue: it is commonly admitted that in countries where INGO are active, an effort must be done to hire female staff in order to encourage their promotion among the staff and in their communities. For that reason, when female staff are underrepresented, INGO may very well give priority to less competent female candidates. The same practice should be promoted towards FOSS among INGO.

International NGO [INGO] and Free and Open Source Software [FOSS]

INGO definition and particularities

Non-governmental organizations [NGOs] are organization independent from any government or for-profit business[7]. The term comes from 1945, during the creation of the United Nations [UN], as some NGOs were awarded observer status at its assemblies. The UN recognises as NGO any independent organization having for main objective a public interest[8].

International NGOs [INGOs] have the particularity to carry out their mission at an international scale, generally targeting developing countries or countries suffering from armed conflicts. Because of this geographical coverage and the specific contexts where they operate, INGOs are far more complex than local NGOs. They have offices in the foreign countries where they are active and employ people from various nationalities. Their activities also require specific logistics capacities, including in terms of communication and IT.

The UN ensure coordination mechanism between INGO in order to facilitate their coordination, Want to say that UN has a leadership role.

but also to control them. Specific sectors are organized in clusters, under the control of an UN agency or a body of the local authority. For example, the WaSH sector (Water, Sanitation & Health) is usually coordinated by UNICEF and the humanitarian/emergency relief by UNOCHA.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, comprising the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of the Red Cross and the various Red Cross Societies is independent from the UN system and its members are not considered as NGOs. It however coordinate heavily with the humanitarian and development actors.[9]

Some organizations alike MSF are implementing their activities exclusively abroad (except for supporting activities alike funds raising and communication), other have activities both in their own countries and abroad, alike some Oxfam affiliates or Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies. In the second case scenario, the organization is usually split into two quite distinct departments.

Another important distinction is whether the INGO implement directly or with a local partner. Direct implementation is the most common modality for humanitarian/emergency responses (typically MSF) while working with local partners is best practice for development/long terms projects. The Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has a different approach: a national society will only work in another country under the umbrella of the national society of this country (i.e. the Spanish Red Cross in Ethiopia will run its project exclusively with the Ethiopian Red Cross). The ICRC however will operate on both modalities depending of the nature of its activities (visit of place of detention are for example carried out directly by the ICRC while restoration of family links is typically an activity carried in close cooperation with the National Societies).

FOSS presentation

FOSS movement

Let's start with a definition of FOSS: “Open Source Software / Free Software (OSS/FS) (also abbreviated as FOSS or FOSS) [...] are programs whose licenses give users the freedom to run the program for any purpose, to study and modify the program, and to redistribute copies of either the original or modified program (without having to pay royalties to previous developers).”[10]

The FOSS movement[11] actually originates from two very different philosophical origins, as this is reflected in its name: “Free/Libre & Open Source”[12].

The difference of motivation between the two origins of the FOSS has generated a lot of debates: “The two terms describe almost the same category of software, but they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, essential respect for the users' freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only.”[13]. Richard Stallman, for example, is very critical towards some specific GNU/Linux distributions alike the Ubuntu one that include inside its core system online search by the users that are forwarded to external entities alike Amazon[14] (to be noted that the identity of the user is not shared and that this feature can be easily deactivated[15]).

The distinction between the two components of the FOSS movement is essential when it comes to appraise its added value for an INGO. Indeed, in one hand the open source dimension of FOSS corresponds rather to technical criteria alike functionality, costs efficiency and way of (net)working. The “freedom for users” dimension in the other hand corresponds to intangible benefits related to values and long term considerations. Those intangible benefits are more complex to grasp and are often considered/confused as/with evangelist speeches. Still, we believe that for the humanitarian/international cooperation sectors, those criteria are actually the most important ones and must be understood and appreciated by the INGO management.

Free as freedom for users

The first origin is the Free Software movement led by Richard Stallman that focuses on the freedom, in the sense of liberty (not free of charge), and with a clear ethical dimension. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) defines fours liberties for the users that all software should respect[16]:

  • freedom 0[17]: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  • freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
  • freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

This is often summarized with the sentence “Free as in 'free speech' not as in 'free beer'”. However, in his article “Freedom for Users, Not for Software”[18], Benjamin Mako Hill makes a very important and relevant comment about the confusion of the word “free” that this sentence does not solve. A software can respect the 4 freedoms listed by the FSF without providing freedom to its users. The Google cloud applications are the most obvious example of this. Google is using FOSS extensively and contributes actively to them. Still, end users have limited control on the applications offered by Google (that can decide alone to change features form one day to another) and, more importantly, on their own data. This applies to most “Software as a Service” (SaaS or cloud application).

The importance of freedom for the users is something difficult for people to grasp, probably because it is insubstantial. They are so used to enclosed environments that they hardly notice their negative effects. The recent revelation by Edward Snowden suddenly made people aware of the risks from losing control on their own data [19]. There are many other negative effects that go almost unnoticed. For example, the presence of virus is something common and normal for most people (virus are practically nonexistent on GNU/Linux platforms) or the obligation to switch to new version of software that implies not only new license fees, but new hardware and lost of backward compatibility, etc. More generally, nobody can guarantee what the proprietary software do with the user data; and this is true for even such a common tool like Skype...[20]

Open Source, the new organizational model

The second origin of the FOSS movement is the Open Source Initiative[21] (OSI), created in 1998 by Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond, that focuses on a pragmatic approach, considering the open source model more efficient to produce quality software. This Open Source Initiative rejects any ethical dimension and focuses on the organizational advantage of using FOSS as it increases the collective intelligence of the organization and results more effective.

This new model was first described by Raymond in his famous essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”[22]. He compares the proprietary way of developing software to the construction of a cathedral that requires clear hierarchy and division of tasks, detailed planning, polished release, etc. while the development of FOSS looks rather like a bazaar where the contributors come in and out quite freely, without a clear repartition of roles and with early and buggy releases. And still, the open source way produced software that are today unavoidable, starting with the GNU/Linux system running 1/3 of the internet servers[23].

Since then, this new model has been “formalized”[24] with a method usually known as Agile[25]. However, the important point is that the open source way is applicable to many other sectors where collaboration matters. The most famous case is obviously Wikipedia that in a few years generated the biggest encyclopedia ever done[26], simply by providing to the internet users the technical tools allowing them to feed the database.

The open source way and its economic model

"If the software is open source, how are developers supposed to make a living?"[27] is a well known question for any FOSS enthusiast. The misunderstanding comes from the fact that the proprietary model has spread the conception of software as a commercial product (that can be sold by the unit), and hence the open source software as a free product (as in “free beer”), which obviously sounds like a paradox.

The OSI, in the other hand, considers software as a service industry. What is paid is not the final product (in fact, a software is a project in constant evolution), but the additional service the client wishes to receive, related to the solution he is adopting: a training, a support contract, an installation process or a customization (since the software is open source, this service can be obtained easily from any competent service provider).

In the other hand, the open source model allows many kind of saving in comparison with the proprietary software model: bugs are easier to spot and fix (because everybody can track them), there is not significant costs of publication (no logistics distribution process needed), no costs for piracy counter-measures (as piracy is meaningless in this model), etc.

As we can see it, the open source model enhances the actual work, not the fact to own the final result of this work. This is an essential characteristic that associates the open source model to the third economy as it gives more recognition for the work of individuals.

The economic model

collective intelligence

ecosystem (LibreOffice)

The open source characteristic has other consequences, alike the leadership model and the fork mechanism. Contrary to a preconceived idea, the open source model does not imply an harmonized internal regulation: the way the development of the software is being managed can be very harsh and competitive. Linus Torvald, the creator and so far leader of the Linux operating system, has some times been called “benevolent dictator” for his way to intervene in debates about technical solutions. And this is only the top of the iceberg. Most of the well spread open source software have been subject to serious internal debates and disputes (usually publicly as the open source culture makes difficult to keep it secret).

As there is no restriction on copying the code, those internal conflicts, being technical or personal, can easily lead to the creation of parallel projects. This mechanism, which is concretely a community schism, is called a fork[28]. Those events are usually considered as negative has they tend to divide the mobilization of the community on the software and generate tensions and resentments among its leaders. It happens however, alike with OpenOffice.org in 2010 (see [#2.1.3.LibreOffice|outline the chapter on LibreOffice]).

From a user's perspective

As said earlier, FOSS should not be considered as a product in its commercial meaning. It is a community project that involves not only developers, but also, leaders, translators, supporters,… and the users. All those stakeholders together compose the community.

The importance of the users should not be underestimated as the relation between the user and the FOSS is very different from the one between a user/consumer and a proprietary software. In the second case scenario, the user has no responsibility, but only some limited rights according to the license he purchased. Therefore, his attitude towards the proprietary software is mostly passive. In the FOSS scenario, the users are the one who give sense to the all project. Without them, a FOSS is simply dead.

Furthermore, the FOSS model tends to consider the user as a co-developer. Not all the users have the developer's skills, but the simple fact to report bug, to discuss about missing features, etc. is already a very important contribution for the FOSS development model.

Also, if the user of FOSS has no obligation in the legal term, he does have responsibilities as using FOSS implies some kind of engagement and ownership. His attitude is definitively active towards the FOSS. This fact significantly contribute to the collective intelligence that makes the FOSS so rich and interesting.

This difference is often ignored and source of misconceptions about FOSS as people used to proprietary software expect the FOSS to offer the same kind of consumer/provider relationship.


LibreOffice[29] is an office suite; one of the most famous FOSS available. It is managed by The Document Foundation[30] and is a fork of the OpenOffice.org office suite (OOo) that occurred in 2010 after OOo had been bought by Oracle and lost momentum due to a reduced support form Oracle[31] (at the same time, two other office suites appeared: Apache OpenOffice and NeoOffice, the latter designed specifically for OS X operating system).

LibreOffice comprises a word processor (Write), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation application (Impress), a vector graphic editor (Draw), an application designed for creating an editing mathematical formulae (Math) and a database (Base).

LibreOffice runs on various OS, including GNU/Linux, Windows, OS X. Its portability to run on Android and iOS is under way, as well as having it running on a web browser.

Compatibility and functionality

In his thesis on large scale migration to OpenOffice.org, Martti Karjalainen[32], report studies he made in terms of compatibility and functionality that showed ….

One could argue that those studies are nowadays outdated as MS Office features have evolved a lot since then. The same applies to LibreOffice and its always larger adoption by European adoption suggest that its compatibility and functionality has not decreased, on the opposite.

The OpenDocument format

By default, LibreOffice uses the OpenDocument Format (ODF)[33], an XML-based file format approved in 2005 by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards industry consortium (OASIS) and released as an ISO and IEC International Standard under the name ISO/IEC 26300:2006 (idem). This format can be read by many programs, including Microsoft Office (starting with the version 2007, SP2), even though not all the features are supported (which generate some controversy as there is no technical barrier to Microsoft to overcome this, which push some to believe that this lack of compatibility is intentional in order to limit interoperability[34]).

The main objective of the ODF is to prevent technical or legal barriers that generate data loss (i.e. the lack of support between various versions of Microsoft Office suite). Despite its limited knowledge among the general population, the ODF has been promoted by many political bodies alike the NATO, the European Union, more than 600 companies, etc. This was a major motivation for several European administrations to migrate to OpenOffice.org and later to LibreOffice.

The motivation that animate public administrations to promote the use of ODF should equally interest the INGO as it goes in line with the public interest...

Some FOSS designed for the international cooperation/humanitarian sector



Match between INGO and FOSS[35]

In terms of values

Logic of collaboration

Vendor lock-in

Empowerment of the user; democracy (accountability)

Acknowledgement of the work done (<> capitalisation) + public interest

Impact on the countries benefiting from the INGO + ongoing development of new technologies that should ideally be developed in Open Source.

In terms of values, costs and policy (“vendor lock-in”)

First, and as explained earlier, the FOSS model differs from the proprietary one by the fact that the remuneration is not based on the capital itself, as it is the case with proprietary software each time a license is sold, but on actual work produced by the developers or the service provider (training, installation, etc.). In this sense, the FOSS model is closer from the social economy.

Also, the FOSS model empower all the members of its community. Everybody can raise his voice (via the fora, etc.) and influence the decision process. The threat of fork that remain a constant possibility, especially if the community leaders are going to the wrong the direction, obliges them to consider what the community members are saying. Put another way, to use a FOSS is a decision that engages the users. They should understand their role in the project and agree to switch from a passive to an active role.

Another match between FOSS and INGO is the sense of public interest. Alike INGO that aims at objectives that benefit to the all society, FOSS are by definition public good that cannot be privatized anymore. For INGO, to contribute to the improvement of FOSS is therefore completely in line with their deep nature.

Organizational impact of using FOSS

FOSS awareness and IT decision mechanism

Lack of FOSS awareness by the INGO managers

IT decision making process in the INGO



  1. We are talking here about INGO, but we could as well include here the other international humanitarian & development organizations, i.e. the UN agencies and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement (ICRC, IFRC and national societies).
  2. In particular, their international coverage requires intense communication facilities (emails, VOIP, cloud storage, etc.) and to be noted also the new trend for digital monitoring (consisting in collecting field data with synchronized IT devices).
  3. Global Humanitarian Assistance estimate that for the last decade and for humanitarian crisis, a total of USD 97.8 billion has been spend (http://www.globalhumanitarianassistance.org/workstream/themes/delivery)
  4. As explained later, there are many terms to refer to the free software. The Free Software Foundation suggests FLOSS standing for Free/Libre and Open Source Software” that avoid any misinterpretation of the word “free” in English, in this case understood as free like in “free speech”, not “free beer”. However, FOSS, used in this document, is more common and less complicated.
  5. See also: http://www.theopensourceway.org, a website dedicated to this type of collaborative way of working.
  6. To include: UN
  7. ‘Non-governmental organization - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia’. [Online]. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-governmental_organization. [Accessed: 03-Jul-2014].
  8. ‘Non-governmental organizations’. [Online]. Available: http://unrol.org/article.aspx?article_id=23. [Accessed: 03-Jul-2014].
  9. For a more comprehensive presentation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and its components, see http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/documents/misc/components-movement.htm
  10. David A. Wheeler, http://www.dwheeler.com/oss_fs_why.html (03/04/14).
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_and_open-source_software
  12. The Free Software Foundation actually recommends to use the acronym FLOSS rather than FOSS, for Free/Libre and Open Source Software (https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/floss-and-FOSS.en.html). As developed later in this document, the “libre” dimension of FOSS is indeed essential, but FOSS being widely used (and easier to pronounce), we will keep it anyway.
  13. Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software, Richard Stallman, https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.en.html
  14. Ubuntu Spyware: What to Do?, Richard Stallman, https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/floss-and-FOSS.en.html
  15. http://askubuntu.com/questions/192269/how-can-i-remove-amazon-search-results-from-the-dash-or-disable-the-feature
  16. See also the GNU Project ( (http://www.gnu.org) and the Free Software Foundation (http://www.fsf.org).
  17. Since they are programers, they start counting at 0, not 1...
  18. ‘Freedom for Users, Not for Software :: Benjamin Mako Hill’. [Online]. Available: http://mako.cc/writing/hill-freedom_for_users.html. [Accessed: 03-Jul-2014].
  19. https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/surveillance/ [Accessed: 03-Jul-2014].
  20. See for example this article about Skype: http://www.techweekeurope.co.uk/comment/privacy-skype-silent-circle-116889. [Accessed: 03-Jul-2014].
  21. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Source_Initiative
  22. ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’. [Online]. Available: http://www.catb.org/%7Eesr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/index.html. [Accessed: 03-Jul-2014].
  23. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usage_share_of_operating_systems. [Accessed: 03-Jul-2014].
  24. Providing that such an unformal model can in theory be formalized.
  25. “Agile software development is a group of software development methods based on iterative and incremental development[according to whom?], in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development and delivery, a time-boxed iterative approach, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change. It is a conceptual framework that promotes foreseen tight iterations throughout the development cycle.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agile_software_development
  26. The website had about 500,000 articles in 2005 and in 2014 counts more than 4,500,000 articles (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia#mediaviewer/File:EnwikipediaGom.PNG). [Accessed: 04-Jul-2014].
  27. http://www.opensource.com/education/13/2/open-source-economic-model
  28. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fork_(software_development)
  29. http://www.libreoffice.org
  30. http://www.documentfoundation.org
  31. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenOffice.org. At the same time, two other office suites appeared: Apache OpenOffice and NeoOffice, the latter designed specifically for OS X operating system; LibreOffice is however the one that got the best adoption by the FOSS community.
  32. Martti Karjalainen, Large-scale migration to an open sourceoffice suite: An innovation adoptionstudy in Finland, 2010, Department of computer sciences, University of Tampere
  33. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenDocument
  34. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenDocument_software#Microsoft_Office_2007_SP2_support_controversy
  35. http://www.april.org/economie-sociale-et-logiciels-libres-le-temps-de-l-alliance