Above: NetHope’s Alexandra Alpert, left, with Norwegian Refugee Council’s Cindy Reales and Claudia Marcela García during her trip to Colombia.

By Alexandra Alpert, Director of Membership, NetHope

As a native Colombian, I looked forward to my homecoming as I traveled to Santa Marta for the NetHope Latin America Chapter meeting. Each time I go back to Colombia I greet the warmth of home with open arms yet am equally surprised by the newness of a place so different than when I left.

I left Colombia in 1985 when many Colombians were seeking refuge around the world including places like Venezuela. My family ended up scattered around the world in the United States, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Germany. Although apart for some time, we all found safety and opportunity.

Over the past three decades since I left Colombia, I witnessed my country become more prosperous, innovative, and stable. It is now a nation where others seek refuge. After more than 50 years of armed conflict, we have finally entered a period of delicate and hopefully permanent peace.

Our history has made us compassionate. Our border remains open as nearly a million and a half of our Venezuelan brothers and sisters have come to Colombia to escape a terrible humanitarian crisis in their country. Yet with a shared 2,200 km long border and a political crisis that has no end in sight, many border communities in Colombia are feeling the impact.

UNHCR tents housing Venezuelan migrants in Colombia.

I witnessed this first-hand in the border cities of Riohacha and Maicao. Located in the department or state of la Guajira, these are communities that have historically suffered severe economic and political injustice. On our drive between Riohacha and Maicao, we stopped and spoke to some people. As one woman working in a local food stand told me, many families in the border towns have Venezuelan relatives they have taken into their homes. Often these people were already struggling; one family with four people would have to share one bag of rice. Now that same family has eight people to feed, but still only has one bag of rice to share, she explained.

A few kilometers away on the Troncal del Caribe (main road from Riohacha to Maicao) the poverty I witnessed became more extreme as we entered an area mostly populated by the Wayuú, the largest indigenous population in Colombia. The Wayuú communities, who have long been neglected and struggled to find basic natural resources like water, now find themselves on the crossroads of a major migration route from Venezuela to Colombia. This crossroad has unveiled and amplified a humanitarian crisis that has existed for decades.

Humanitarian Response on the Border

It is no surprise that Riohacha and Maicao have become the epicenter for international humanitarian organizations in Colombia. Earlier this month, I traveled with my friend and colleague Claudia Marcela García, who leads ICT in the region for Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). Claudia’s leadership and the support from NRC was instrumental in getting NetHope’s connectivity work started in Colombia. The NetHope response team, led by Rami Shakra (Global Programs Director), has set up more than 50 sites providing connectivity to dozens of NGOs that deliver critical services to the affected communities. One of these sites was in the Centro de Recepción, or Center for Attention for Migrants in Maicao. Although it is considered a short-term transit center for the most vulnerable migrants, not a formal refugee settlement, seeing the UNHCR tents lined up row after row made it difficult to differentiate it from other refugee settlements I have visited.

The Center, coordinated by the Danish Refugee Council, recently opened and will continue to grow over the next few months. The Center is situated in a dry, remote and hot area of the country not far from the Venezuelan border, and offers basic services for Venezuelan migrants looking for information, food, water, health services, and shelter all provided by organizations like NRC, Americares, SOS Children’s Villages, Save the Children, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Colombian Red Cross.

NetHope in Latin America

The 2019 NetHope Latin America Chapter.

Four years ago in the offices of Save the Children in Bogotá, the NetHope Latin America Chapter was formed. We were a small group, but highly committed to maximizing the potential of each organization by collaborating in the region. Since that time, the Chapter has grown and the response to the crisis in Venezuela has given the group a common purpose.

During our March Chapter meeting in Santa Marta, Colombia we identified opportunities for collaboration. There were some common themes among the members working in the region. First, with organizations expanding their programming across the migration route, the demand for connectivity continues to be high.

Second, there is a critical need to provide accurate information as part of aid delivery to migrants about things like their legal rights and how to access services-while identifying how we can leverage technologies like AI to optimize the delivery of information to migrants.

Con Gratitud y Orgullo
(With Gratitude and Pride)

I am incredibly thankful to all of those in the NetHope community who are making an impact in Colombia and across the region including:
• My colleagues from NetHope Rami Shakra, Brent Carbno, John Crowley, Dag Brynjarsson, Ingo Haraldsson; Matt Altman from the CiscoTacops team; LP Svensson, Gonzalo Suardiaz, and Dhires Moodley with the Ericsson Response team.
• To our many volunteers from Team Rubicon, Facebook, Caritas Colombia, Mercy Corps, and NRC, your leadership and collaboration is what makes the NetHope community thrive.
• To the Latin America Chapter, I’m inspired by your talent and dedication.
• To our devoted partners supporting NetHope in Colombia: Cisco TacOps, Ericsson Response, Facebook, Microsoft, Airbnb – thank you for making all this work possible.

Lastly, it is a huge challenge to secure funding for programs in Latin America, especially in countries like Colombia, considered to be “middle income” countries. Latin America is the most unequal region in the world and since inequality is directly related to poverty reduction, when a humanitarian crisis like the one in Venezuela spills over borders, it impacts the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the entire region. For the few organizations able to work inside Venezuela, basic power, connectivity, and security are currently the core challenges to aid delivery.

As many NetHope members and other civil society organizations prepare to engage in long-term humanitarian aid delivery and intervention in the region, I believe collaboration will be a key component to overcoming both the operational challenges organizations are facing today, like connectivity,  as well as bring long-term solutions that can have a long-lasting impact for the region.

The magnitude of situation in Venezuela is overwhelming and yet it represents just one of the many humanitarian crises around the world that NetHope members are responding to. The incredible demand on these organizations create a necessity for efficiency and is where collaboration matters most. Collaborating to overcome operational challenges like connectivity or working together to identify innovative technical solutions that can deliver high value and be scaled are ways we can increase efficiency. 

Despite the challenges I saw in Colombia, I left feeling hopeful as I witnessed collaboration at the Chapter meeting and in the field where members were working together to solve problems. NetHope will continue to support our members in the region as a convening body that can facilitate collaboration among NGOs, and identify opportunities to work with our technology partners, maximizing the impact of their technologies, donations, and expertise.

Filed Under: Digital nonprofit, Emergency Response, information, Organization Update, Technology in Our World