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A grad student anticipates NetHope Global Summit 2016

The tech industry has rallied to the cause of helping refugees

November 2, 2016

By Roya Pakzad

I first learned about NetHope via the SDG ICT Playbook: From Innovation to Impact, a report that describes how Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) can be applied to address United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). I’m a former electrical engineer who has decided to put my mind in the hands of my heart, and go back to school and study human rights. It was very heartwarming for me to learn about NetHope, an organization that brings together high-tech companies, NGOs and charity organizations to collaborate on practical recommendations for achieving sustainable development goals.

To be sure, ICTs are nothing more than tools: sometimes they have been villains in tales of killing, surveillance, and harassment. Other times, they have been heroes, bringing the world together in support of freedom during a time when the world has been befallen by humanitarian crises.

As a scholar of the role of technology in human rights and development, I have come to believe that using technology as a positive force in these fields requires multi-stakeholder cooperation. We need a place to bring together different actors – from faith-based organizations to high-tech companies, from NGOs to academia, from local actors to global. We need to create a space for these actors to get together and learn from each others’ knowledge and experiences. I am attending the NetHope Summit to see and learn from the network of actors that put their hope in resolving some of the current humanitarian, human rights and development problems in our world. 

Technology and the current refugee crisis
The current refugee crisis has become an active field of endeavor for computer scientists, tech companies, and even UN agencies seeking to develop novel methods to address issues such as education, livelihood, safety and accommodation.

The tech industry has rallied to the cause of helping refugees, holding Hackathons, designing mobile phone applications to provide assistance in learning foreign languages and information about local services. Nonprofits and startups have donated thousands of smartphones and tablets. 

But maybe now is the time  and this conference is the place – to start to measure and evaluate these initiatives. Maybe it’s the right venue to share the challenges that these service providers have faced, and to measure how inclusive and sensitive these initiatives are in terms of gender, age group and nationality. I will be covering these topics in my session at the Summit, and will share my experience, and those of my refugee friends regarding the challenges that I mentioned above.

Financial technology for vulnerable groups
A couple of weeks ago, I talked to my refugee friend who had decided to give all of his money to a smuggler and travel from Greece to Italy clinging to the bottom of a truck. Despite the extreme danger he faced during this 38-hour trip, he finally reached Milan. He was looking for a place to spend the night, but he didn’t have the money or passport required to stay in a hostel. This made me think about the lack of secure and easy financial services for refugees and also other vulnerable groups. There must be financial technologies we can leverage to create solutions for refugees, who either lose their cash during their journeys or are robbed or tricked by smugglers. The Summit could be a good place to talk about the future of financial technology and inclusion for vulnerable groups. Nonprofit organizations such as the Gates FoundationOmidyar Foundation, and Accion have already started addressing this issue and could be pioneers in bringing tech solutions to this problem.

Networking with like-minded colleagues
Besides what I mentioned above, I would like to learn about the new initiatives in closing the gender gap in digital literacy, because when we focus on technology as a solution we should take into account that this solution should be inclusive and beneficial for all members of society. I am also looking forward to learning about the potential privacy and security related to the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Last but not least, I’m looking forward to talking to like-minded people who believe that although technology is not a simple answer to resolve big issues in the world, it can be used for sustainable and rights-based development.

Born and raised in Tehran and educated as an electrical engineer, Roya Pakzad is an M.A. candidate in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University in New York. After completing her thesis next spring, she will seek to pursue a career focusing on the intersection of technology and humanitarian issues. She is 29 years old.

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