Third World Network website: treasure or trash?

Every weekend I suffer a spasm of fear as my routine trawl of development news reaches the visit to twn.my. Will I be confronted by one of those breathless announcements that a new design of the site is to be released, nowadays as common as the disappointment that follows?

My fears are amply justified and have been agonisingly prolonged: twn.my is the inconspicuous address of the international NGO sector’s most archaic website. The distance by which the Third World Network site deserves this accolade is considerable. If there was an online equivalent of world heritage sites, twn.my would be on the UNESCO leaderboard.

Preserve this site in digital aspic

Preserve this site in digital aspic

Even veterans of online publishing may have difficulty in dating the technology of twn.my. The crude box headlines at the top of the front page remind me of the websites that my own organisation (OneWorld) was building for major development NGOs in the late 1990s. Images appear on the page reluctantly, probably involving Herculean editorial effort, and the banner section headings evoke the output of a John Bull printing set. The search box disappears from the masthead in the archive pages, just where it’s most needed.

So why should I lament the inevitable demise of this digital dinosaur, given my unwavering admiration for TWN? For me, its survival defies the tyranny of communications experts who decree that your website must be redesigned every couple of years, if your organisation is to avoid an identity crisis and worse.

Unless I’m much mistaken, Third World Network continues to do what it has always done extremely well. It retains the trust of UN and WTO secretariats necessary to gain the highest available NGO observer status, through which we receive detailed reports of negotiations. Its policy research tackles the hard yards that others fear, currently grappling with the complex interaction of global justice with genomics and synthetic biology. Above all, TWN remains fiercely loyal to its origins as a voice for developing countries, speaking out against the inadequacy of the Paris climate agreement at the endgame of the negotiations, when most NGOs were ready to settle.

These qualities survive, in spite of evident aversion to branding or marketing. The organisation’s name alone is testimony; any self-respecting corporatist NGO would have long since deemed “Third World” to be politically incorrect and adopted the acronym as a standalone title. Yet, for all its retro public image, TWN has fielded consistently inspiring advocates for global justice, many of whom I would love to have met: Martin Khor, Chee Yoke Ling, Lim Li Lin and many more. Shame about the Penang address!

A professional mobile-friendly website and active social media accounts are important branding tools. But they are insufficient to compensate for shortcomings in the traditional areas of business competence. If Third World Network is comfortable with what it does and is recognised as such, it may be justified in steering resources away from conventional areas towards subdomain sites such as its bookshop and Mandarin language site – these appear to use smarter content management software.

Nonetheless, I’ve little doubt that younger members of the organisation are in a constant state of agitation over the pre-millennial state of external communications, attributing whatever currently ails the organisation accordingly. There are signs of change; during last month’s climate negotiations in Bonn I spotted a Drupal beta version of TWN reports and, more remarkable still, active accounts on Facebook and Twitter. None of these yet show signs of taking root, so I’m confident that my weekly adrenalin rush on clicking through to twn.my is safe for now.

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