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Silicon Philanthropy

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It seems that long gone are the days of Rockstars and Musicians raising money for third world poverty relief programs. The musical philanthropy of Bob Geldof and Bono has largely been sidelined by a new class of wealthy, humanist minded individuals; Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs. The efforts of these fantastically wealthy individuals are largely focussed on how technology can right the imbalances in equality as opposed to thrusting handfuls of public raised money hand over fist to African dictators. Here, TechWench discusses the poverty relief efforts of some of Californias tech glitterati.

Silicon Philanthropy

Live8, Comic Relief and many other established poverty charities have come under scrutiny from the public recently. It seems that very little of raised funds reaches the front line that they claim to be raising for. A recent study by an American news outlet exposed numerous charities which existed only as money collecting fronts for larger businesses with as little as five cents on the dollar reaching those they claim to represent, the rest is squirreled away in management costs and fat (occasionally multiple) paycheques to those in the know of the charities workings. The attraction of the charity business model are plain to see; a tax-free method of raising money directly from the public just by tugging a few heartstrings then use the money to further your own enterprise. The ole Christian Church business model. It works too, what better way to raise your own feeling of self-worth by outsourcing your philanthropic efforts to a shiny company who only want a few dollars a month to save the world. Consider the attraction to businesses too; Company A & B sell the same products and have the same market share, Company A signs up to a well-known charity, donates a million a year to fight say, cancer in dolphins, then tell everyone that they donate a million a year. Customers of Company A will feel self-affirmation for their ethical shopping habits. Customers of Company B will switch over to A as their heartstrings have been tugged by images of dolphins in a chemo tank, they attain that same sense of self-affirmation and Company A increases their market share and make two million a year instead.

Business. That is what large charities have shown themselves to be about, a way of squirreling money into tax free accounts that they can then use to buy services from their parent company. Consider the fact that some of the biggest donators (these guys have a lot of face to save and a lot of tax to avoid) are oil companies. Oil companies who can make a huge shout and a hoo-haa about how much they donate every year to direct public attention away from all that oil they are spilling, the third world countries and communities they harvest massive amounts of resources from for cut rate prices. After a very generous donation from Big Oil these charities are then able to purchase oil-clean up services from the people who know about oil; Oil Companies. But they can get it cheaper as it’s tax-free and the clean-up costs are met partway by the donations of the general public. Use your own money (and public money) to get cheap, token clean-up operations to maintain or increase your market share. If only one company or charity had this approach then it may not be so bad; yet it is rife.

So; private business interests have skewed the charity sphere with their own predilection for that Ole’ Profit Motive. Consider the fact revealed a few years ago that should a company make a sizeable enough donation to Bono’s flagship charity, employees receive bespoke welcome packages totalling some hundred dollars a pop as a “thanks for donating” I thought they were donating because they wanted to help humanity? Not so. So who are the good guys in all this? Individuals themselves. The public, however misinformed about the inner workings of charities, are donating out of altruistic intentions. They feel the need to help but Africa and Asia are so very far away and so donation is one of the few things they feel they can do to help ease the problems blarted at us through the TV screens. Now, however, there is a new class of philanthropists. A class with money garnered from an industry they worked to build themselves, the big money-maker world of Computer Tech.

It is no secret that the rapid development of digital technology has vastly increased the potential of mankind. The West and other moneyed countries have seen entire new industries spring up off the back of efforts of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. How many people have made their fortune online? Many thousands. How many people are employed in maintaining the infrastructure of the digital economy? Many millions. The benefits of a connected world have shown themselves with information being bipped around the world in a blink of an eye, opening a truly global marketplace where people can source products or sell services, 24/7.

Now they wish to bring the same benefits they have developed for the first world into the third. Not only focussed on bringing internet connectivity to poverty stricken countries they are also focussed on bringing innovative tech to the third world. Google has allowed for the first comprehensive maps of African cities, there was the Soccket (discussed later) and other programs outside of a technology focus such as Bill Gates massive drive against HIV in Africa by providing education and circumcision programs to the masses. Samasource, an American charity focusses on providing employment to refugees in camps by paying them to perform bulk data tasks such as dental record transcription and other analogue to digital conversions. They have the money to do it that’s for sure, they are starting these programs so surely they have the right mindset, right?

Potentially not it saddens me to say. What use is a comprehensive map of an African city if the locals know it from the ground and can’t access Google Maps? The energy behind the One Laptop Per Child program has tempered somewhat after it was revealed that access to the $100 laptops led to little improvement in basic education or school attendance, a fact revealed last year by two separate studies from disparate areas of the globe; Peru and Nepal. The fact is that many of the technologically focussed projects just do not deliver on the promises made in their flashy, expensive launch events. If you do not remember the Soccket then no one would be surprised, it was a device developed by Harvard Grads as a way to improve the lives of impoverished masses by providing them with a cheap, off-grid power source removing the need to invest in power stations, electricity grids and other associated infrastructure. The device is a football linked to a charging pack and LED light, half hour of kick about for three hours of light. “Huzzah! Genius!” they cried, even Bill Clinton went as far to say the device was “extraordinary” as it increased work and educational capacities with a leisure oriented device.

A good idea? Certainly. The best idea? Certainly not. The Soccket was priced at $99 a-piece and so to roll the system out to the many individuals who have to stop their day when the sun goes down or waste valuable fuel in lighting their homes would cost many, many billions. Consider the price of a standard solar-charged lamp. $10. So for the price of the Soccket campaign you could reach nearly ten times the individuals and they wouldn’t have to give over half an hour of the day to provide three hours of light. Half an hour does not sound like a lot of time but consider the energy expenditure of playing for that long, energy which could be placed elsewhere whilst the solar lamp sits and charges itself and runs for longer. When viewed like that three hours doesn’t sound like a lot of time and $99 sounds like investment practices.

So where does that leave the status, quo or no? Mayhap no when you consider that Samasource claims to have paid over $3 million in wages to impoverished workers across five different countries but over the course of its lifetime has been donated some $12 million plus, ergo; for every dollar they pay out they get four in return. The best intentions of internet connectivity programs have led to dusty, abandoned internet cafes as people in the area focus their efforts on procuring food and clean water to get through the day as opposed to making a few bucks profit. This is where the disconnect lies; Third world countries are operating in a Survivalist Paradigm which has been transcended by a large swathe of the western world whilst the first world runs in a Profit Paradigm where survival needs are accommodated; clean water is not an issue, food production is at surplus.

There we have it, the key factor that may mean that the Silicon Valley Philanthropists are of entirely the same ilk of Bono and Geldof; That Ole Profit Motive. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all of their efforts are in vein, not by any means. Truly useful technology has its own way of propagating itself; there are nearly 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions on the planet and the technology has been adapted to encompass financial services in developing countries. A new incubator has been designed which can be constructed from car engines we dumped across the third world. In this we see a true altruistic spirit; don’t give expensive widgets, give them the means to develop their own.

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