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Wed 9 Nov 2016 04:08 PM

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'Sky is the limit' for philanthropic tech start-ups in Middle East

“Technology, philanthropy and the rest of us,” writes Hala Fadel, a partner at Leap Ventures and the founder and Chair of the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab Region.

'Sky is the limit' for philanthropic tech start-ups in Middle East
Hala Fadel is a partner at Leap Ventures and the founder and Chair of the MIT Enterprise Forum of the Pan Arab Region.

I was moderating a panel last month in Amman at the award ceremony of the MIT Enterprise Forum Pan Arab ‘Innovate for Refugees’ competition when MIT professor Admir Masic emotionally said: “Today, the sky is the limit”.

At first, it felt like a rather cliché statement, on further reflection this well-used phrase became one of those ‘aha’ moments for me.

Bosnian-born Admir Masic was denied access to school as a refugee in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia. Despite all odds, he became an MIT professor. His passion and compassion, while listening on the judging panel of the competition to teams from around the world presenting their technology projects at the ‘Innovate for Refugees’ final event, led him to this conclusion: ‘Today the sky is the limit’.

So, why is the sky the limit? Because today technology means scalability.

When Admir was a refugee twenty years ago, helping refugees meant helping a handful: 10, 100, maybe even 10,000 refugees and with a lot of manpower. Back then, the ratio of volunteer to refugee for proper care was 1 to 300.

Today, however, if we consciously engage the full power of technology, the ratio can become 1 to a million and with much better service. In fact, some services offered now, were previously unimaginable. What’s been amazing to witness as well is how some refugees themselves are creating technology solutions to solve their own problem.

Such was the case of Open Embassy, one of the winners of the Innovate for Refugees competition, a joint project between Ahmad, a Syrian developer who found shelter in the Netherlands, and Renee, a Dutch immigration researcher.

Open embassy is an online platform to help refugees start a new life in their host countries leveraging peer-to-peer advice, recommendation and direct help. Technology in this case enables the human factor as opposed to replacing it.

From mental support platforms to innovative electricity solutions, from job creation to low cost refrigeration solution, the 1,633 submissions to the competition proved in fact that the refugee crisis is a huge opportunity to democratise access and services that were reserved to a few.

This is, of course, the concept of ‘Abundance’ developed by Peter Diamondis in his book and as he puts it: “for every big problem, there is a big market”. I would add that there is probably a big technology solution for this problem that will capture this market.

These powerful solutions need funding. Some of them can go down the venture capital path because their addressable market goes beyond a specific humanitarian problem and they are commercially very viable. Others will need the support of philanthropists because there is a deep humanitarian mission behind them.

It is, however, a unique moment in history for any philanthropist to get the highest return on his or her donation: instead of helping a few, his impact is on millions. Yet giving is not a “natural act” for many of us, especially in the Middle East.

The other panelist, Alexander Mars, founder of the Epic foundation, shared with us the anecdote of his six-year old daughter giving spontaneously 100 percent of her savings while we think twice before giving 1 percent.

Technology has opened up an opportunity for small and large philanthropists to get an almost infinite return on their donations in terms of impact, with full transparency of how this money is used. $150,000 required to develop and commercialise a sanitation solution that will give millions of refugees access to a proper bathroom. 30,000 dollars to launch Open Embassy. Some of these amounts are even being crowd funded leading the way to millions of philanthropists using the power of technology on a crowd funding platform.

The combination of technology and philanthropy can find a solution to any humanitarian problem the world will be facing.

Let’s make sure we join the movement of global mobilisation around solving our biggest challenges using technology, one whereby all humans are empowered by technology to become philanthropist enjoying infinite impact returns on their small but meaningful donations.

The sky is the limit.