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A Personal Account of a Tech Partner in Colombia

There was no better sense of accomplishment for me than seeing people smile after they got connected to the internet.

March 5, 2019

Every day, humanitarian response―and the promise that digital transformation holds for nonprofits to aid the world’s most vulnerable and underserved―is the focus of our work. But this is not a theoretical, detached proposition. The impact this work has on individuals and the communities we serve is what motivates all of us to perform this work daily.

From the perspective of our tech partners and members, we are seeing the concrete, positive effects of NetHope’s humanitarian response in Colombia. As it is so heartbreakingly known, the crisis now occurring in Venezuela has caused widespread havoc in the country since the Colombian government began its crackdown. The result is more than two million people temporarily or permanently displaced since 2014, many living on the absolute edge of poverty and destitution.

In December, NetHope deployed a team of connectivity responders to La Guaijira, a region in northern Colombia, where many of these migrants have gathered. First-time responder Gonzalo Suardiaz, a Product Owner within Ericsson’s Digital Services unit, witnessed the intensity of this situation first-hand as he and his team worked to install Wi-Fi connectivity to support the work of responding aid agencies, as well as the migrants themselves. Gonzalo relates his experiences during his deployment, and the personal reactions he had to the individuals he was serving and the opportunities that connectivity plays in helping both aid responders and recipients.

By Gonzalo Suardiaz, Ericsson

My first mission deployment with Ericsson Response was an incredible rollercoaster of emotions.

Gonzalo Suardiaz from Ericsson spends time with a young Venezuelan migrant during his deployment in Colombia. - Photo by Gonzalo Suardiaz

There were several days, especially when we worked close to the border, in which we saw real misery: tons of people walking along the road with their few belongings, small kids selling fuel, people just lying down on the ground while others urinated just a couple of meters beside them, hundreds of people (including pregnant women and small children) waiting by the door of a communal dining room just to get a plate of food…It’s been challenging for me to see all that and to stay 100 percent focused on our mission.

As expected, we’ve had all sorts of setbacks: we had to build team spirit and camaraderie with a new team that had never worked together before. We had a bunch of technical issues and sometimes had to wait for long periods to get site access permission or information we required to complete our work. One day in which nothing was really going our way, we tried to set up an access point in a tower and a bloody bee hive prevented us from climbing to the top! When you combine all the poverty you’ve seen around you, and the fact that nothing is really working as you expected, you just want to cry when you get back to your room. But we persevered.

I was incredibly lucky to travel with LP Svensson, the “pater familias” of Ericsson Response. LP is our greatest expert―he’s been working in Ericsson Response since its founding and even longer setting up telecommunication networks. He is not only a top-level subject matter expert, but also quite a remarkable person: generous, funny, a great team player, and always showing a positive attitude. We call him MacGyver because he always finds a way forward, no matter the problem. In one of the compounds, he managed to place an access point on a light post by means of standing on an excavator shovel. For LP, nothing is impossible. I feel very fortunate that I could be in the field with him and learn from his skills and expertise every day.

Photo by Gonzalo Suardiaz

Daily temperatures oscillated between 32 and 35 degrees. Every day, we got sandy, dirty, and sweaty. We climbed rooftops and walls or crawled through ditches to get wherever we needed. We occasionally had to buy ad hoc gear and get creative. We did whatever had to be done just to get the job done, and that’s something of which I’m quite proud. It was physical work, but ingenuity and imagination always played a relevant role in finding the best solution. In a total of 11 days in the field, we succeeded in creating 29 installations providing free Wi-Fi for several NGOs, communal dining rooms, schools, and clinics. Right now, we have other teams deployed to Cúcuta and Arauca to accomplish something similar in those areas. Let it continue this way!

There was no better sense of accomplishment for me than seeing people smile after they got connected to the internet. In Colombia, not everyone has a data subscription in their phone. As people became connected to our free Wi-Fi network, you could see and hear tons of Facebook or WhatsApp notifications popping up on their phones…the smiles on their faces and their genuine gratitude really made some of my days.

I feel happy about what we accomplished. But at the same time, I feel sad for all the poverty and misery I saw―again, the rollercoaster feeling. I have seen plenty of poverty before, when I worked in Sub-Saharan Africa. But I guess once you have your own children, it’s all different. I’m much more sensitive now than a few years back. However, after this amazing experience, it’s even more clear to me that I want to continue collaborating in the humanitarian sector and would love to re-orient my career in this area. We are in a position to help others and that is something that I do not want to let go…

We would like to give thanks to the individuals who deployed on this mission to Colombia and the organizations currently working there including NetHope members HIAS, International Federation of Red Cross, Norwegian Refugee Council, Mercy Corps, Samaritan’s Purse, Save the Children, Team Rubicon, and NetHope partners Cisco/Cisco TacOps, Ericsson Response, Facebook, and Microsoft.

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