A Tech Group Works on the Front Lines of Global Crises—and Big Funders Follow

Recently, we highlighted how a few funders were approaching the global refugee crisis differently. Among them are the Cisco, Vodafone, and Google foundations. What makes the charitable arms of these titans of tech unusual in this space is that they are focused on information connectivity in the face of disasters and crises.

Say what, you might ask? Does this kind of giving really make sense given more acute more priorities that involve life and death? 

As someone who covers global crises and disasters closely, I have to admit that when I read (and wrote) about Google.org’s $5.3 million grant to help launch NetHope’s Project Reconnect, I thought “What the hell? Children are dying, families are starving, and Google is concerned with the Internet?” I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought that.

What's more, it's easy to be suspicious about the motives of companies who engage in charity that emphasizes their own worldview—e.g., better technology is the answer to most problems—as opposed to focusing on more urgent if pedestrian needs.

All of this is why it's helpful to dig down further into what NetHope is about and what its funders are trying to accomplish.

NetHope’s tagline is “Changing the world through the power of technology and collaboration.” This consortium of over 40 international NGOs has been around since 2001 and has been working to tackle some of the world’s most pressing global health and development challenges like poverty, food security, the ever-growing refugee population, and gender equality.

Google.org and Cisco aren't the only tech funders behind this outfit. NetHope’s supporters and partners list is a veritable who’s who in the tech world.

With its recent $5.3 million grant, Google.org is among the funding leaders here. Prior to that, the foundation awarded NetHope a $600,000 grant in 2014. Next up is the Paul G. Allen Foundation, which has committed over $2 million to the organization to date. Here’s a quick look at other tech supporters:

  • Gates has invested nearly $400,000
  • Intel awarded NetHope $350,000 in grants
  • Cisco has put in for $200,000
  • Tosa Foundation has awarded nearly $300,000 in grants
  • Dell has given the outfit $300,000
  • Adobe contributed $$50,000
  • Hewlett put up $40,000

In terms of corporate giving, Microsoft has donated over $44 million in cash and software to NetHope and its partners since 2005. More recently, Microsoft Philanthropies is also getting in on the action by announcing a donation of $1 billion of Microsoft Cloud Services, including Microsoft Azure, Power Bi, and the Enterprise Mobility Suite, to serve a number of nonprofits and university researchers for the next three years. NetHope will be one of the many recipients of Microsoft’s donations.

Foundations of the non-tech variety are big contributors, too. Since 2009, the Rockefeller Foundation has supported NetHope with over $1.8 million in grants and the Patterson and Seattle foundations have each contributed around $165,000 and $120,000, respectively.

Related: Food, Water, Shelter, Wi-Fi: How Microsoft is Helping Refugees

So what’s got all of these funders so jazzed about NetHope? Because communication, information sharing, and connectivity are crucial elements to mounting effective campaigns in response to global humanitarian and health crises.

Humanitarian aid tends to bottleneck, in part, because of a poor flow of information. When public officials, aid agencies, governments and the like, don’t know the full depth or breadth of a crisis, it’s difficult to develop a response blueprint. And it's hard to get supplies from point A to point B, in the right quantities in a timely way, if communications systems are weak.

A lack of connectivity often means desperately needed supplies and human resources are stalled until critical information is gathered and dispersed among key actors. That delay can mean the difference between life and death, as we saw in the Ebola crisis, where the world learned some hard lessons about the importance of connectivity.

In January 2015, the San Francisco-based nonprofit Inveneo, with the help of Facebook’s data science team, launched a three-month campaign to bring Internet access to some 100 locations in West Africa to help combat the spread of Ebola. Why? Because according to Chris Weasler, Facebook’s director of global connectivity, it took three months after the first Ebola deaths in Guinea “before anyone got word to health officials and people figured out this was Ebola and started reacting to it.” Weasler went on to say that the time gap was “a function of poor connectivity.”

NetHope collaborated with its partners in response to the Ebola outbreak as well, providing communications equipment, mobile satellite terminals, satellite phones, and solutions to connectivity problems that “unified disparate sources of humanitarian care.”

More recently, NetHope has been tackling the global refugee crisis. In Dadaab, Kenya, NetHope, along with Cisco, Microsoft, Inveneo, and USAID, executed a large scale plan to implement a high-speed broadband network at the Dadaab refugee camp. The result:

  • Over 20 local relief agencies were able to work together, share information, and deliver aid more efficiently and effectively.
  • Five of Dadaab’s community centers were able to offer online education at the high school and college level.
  • People were able to access vocational and life skills training.

As for that $5.3 million give from Google.org, it will allow NetHope to provide 25,000 Chromebooks to NGOs supporting refugees in Germany. The hope here is that with the connectivity offered by the Chromebooks will help refugee populations rebuild their lives by facilitating access to education and other important information resources—like how to file for asylum and language lessons.

Related: How Do Chromebooks Help Refugees? Google.org Has an Answer to That

NetHope is also providing charging states along migration routes and refugee camps and providing refugee camps in Jordan connectivity kits. Finally, it’s developing a “comprehensive information portal” where refugees can learn about safe migration routes, specific locations offering aid, and information regarding the state of conflict in their home countries.

So there are plenty of reasons why tech funders are heavily backing NetHope. But the bigger question here may be “Is this what refugees want or even need?” The answer, which may surprise some, is “Yes.”

A Thompson Reuters Foundation article revealed that the first questions often asked by refugees arriving at camps in Greece was whether or not the camps had Internet access and a place to chare their phones. Isaac Kwamy, director of Global Programs, Disaster Preparedness and Response at NetHope who who visited the camps this summer said “Very few of them (migrants) sad ‘We are hungry, we need food. Or we are thirsty, can we have water. They are literally asking ‘Do you have Wi-Fi access and where can we charge our phones.”

He went on to say “It's as important as eating food, drinking water, being treated (medically), being given a tent.”