Above: NetHope's Global Programs Director of Field Operations, Rami Shakra, welcomes those who helped during NetHope's deployment to reconnect Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.
By Lauren Woodman, CEO, NetHope
What struck me first upon arriving at the Caribe Hilton, the site of our NetHope Global Summit 2019, was warmth. But not just the warmth of the tropical weather, but the warmth of everyone who welcomed us at the hotel and of the Summit attendees who began arriving from all parts of the globe to convene and collaborate to do good better. While every Summit is special, this one held special meaning for many of us attending.
- This is the first time that we have hosted a Summit in a location in which we have actively responded.
- Two years ago, in 2017, the landscape was very different. The island was slammed by the Category 5 winds and waves of Hurricane Maria, leveling buildings, tearing out communications, and destroying lives. As NetHope has done for years, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work, setting up communication networks for our members and for the residents to begin to rescue, recover, and reconnect. Returning to Puerto Rico is a homecoming for many of our members and partners who responded to this disaster.
- Two months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and this hotel, the NetHope team began exploring the opportunity to host this event and invest in Puerto Rico. Nearly everyone on this property – staff managing the event and hosting us – endured Hurricane Maria and its aftermath. They have all suffered losses. They each have stories. And they each demonstrate the resilience of the residents of Puerto Rico. Despite (and perhaps because of) this their generosity and spirit are remarkable. Please make sure that you thank them.
I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to our Summit theme of “Vision. Hope. Action." This Summit is also the opportunity for NetHope and its 55 members and over 80 partners to connect with our work. We always stress collaboration and participation as the key to better use of technology to improve the human condition. Puerto Rico was when we got to put those words into action, creating a web of communication around the island, utilizing known technologies and stretching ourselves to improve and work collectively to discover new methods of achieving our goals.
Which leads to the main push forwarded by our first day at the Summit and several of NetHope’s Working Groups met to plan themes and agendas for the coming year. The experiences in Puerto Rico post-Maria were part of the genesis that led to a new Working Group focusing on Alternative Energy. The need for reliable but sustainable energy to power networks is imperative: not only from an availability and resourcing standpoint, but to be in line with the targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals which call for lessening dependence on fossil fuels (which also ironically fuels the very hurricane which devastated Puerto Rico). As Alex Alpert, NetHope’s Director of Membership noted as she introduced several of the Working Group leads, “they offer the leadership, the vision, and help guide the work that addresses the big challenges that we all face.” We were also treated to the reunion of our Global Programs Director of Field Operations, Rami Shakra, reconnecting with the individuals who had worked with NetHope in those critical days following the hurricane, and the months that followed, to get systems up and running. This session, and the panel discussion of lessons learned with Angela Sousa, served both as practical guides to improve our response and an emotional reminder of why we all do this work. We ended the day’s agenda on a lighter note as Pablo Suarez of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre introduced the topic of the use of humor in humanitarian work. His inimitable wit demonstrated that even in the face of crisis, we all need to ground ourselves in one of the qualities that bind us together as humans. Also, it was personally gratifying for me to revisit Puerto Rico to see the progress that’s been made with the stark realization that the residents of the island still have far too go to get back to “normal.” It was also a reminder that NetHope, despite our many successes, is still learning—and will always need to—in order to continually improve how we serve our members, interact with our partners, and provide hope for millions of people across the world. P.S. Don’t forget to fill out session evaluations on the NetHope app; these truly help us in developing programs that speak to YOUR needs! Thank you.