US government reaches out to Silicon Valley on Ebola recovery

Silicon Valley giant Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, has shelled out USD$25 million toward the international response to Ebola. Photo by: Max Morse / Techrunch / CC BY

U.S. government officials head to Silicon Valley Wednesday to discuss gaps in the Ebola relief effort in West Africa and identify ways for tech-savvy entrepreneurs and philanthropists to get more involved.

Silicon Valley has been an important player in the crisis, and the question moving forward is how to coordinate the industry’s contribution and making the best use of its resources, Andy Weber, deputy coordinator for Ebola response at the U.S. State Department, told Devex.

“Maybe it’s even harder on the IT side, because if you have 70 companies in any space, how can you get them to work together and combine forces?” he said.

Weber is speaking Wednesday to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a charity that controls more than $6.5 billion in assets and administered more than $474 million to charities in 2014.

Tech billionaires like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen both administered relief funds and donations through SVCF last year, giving $25 million and $100 million, respectively, to Ebola efforts in West Africa.

The Ebola epidemic has killed more than 9,000 people since March 2014, mostly in West Africa. Liberia, the least-affected of the three hardest-hit countries, has seen new cases fall to single digits this week. The World Bank Group reported on Tuesday that 20 percent of Liberian households have now returned to work.

“What I want to know is,” Weber said, “what should I be asking from [Silicon Valley] coming from the government side?”

Weber posed the question Monday to a panel of global health experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Monday, at an event on the future of Ebola rapid diagnostic tests.

From the diagnostic perspective, the challenge for the tech sector is choosing and funding the best tools quickly, said Gene Walther, independent consultant to the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

“I don’t know if we have enough room [in the diagnostic field] for as many players as there are in the tech sector,” he said. “So being able to identify which are the best technologies, best products and best companies for some of these things, and then making sure we give them the right tools and the right support is essential.”

Beyond technological tools in the fight against Ebola, Silicon Valley’s financial resources could open new doors, though understanding context is important.

“To stay effective, there has to be careful analysis to find out what makes the most sense for the current landscape, not what it was like before Ebola,” Pia Wanek, director of humanitarian assistance at Global Communities, told Devex.

At the same time, capitalizing on Silicon Valley’s strong suits — and placing focus on the gaps in development that already exist in the anti-Ebola effort — should be the first priority for these new players.

When asked how technology corporations should contribute going forward, Brett Sedgewick, a technical analyst with Global Communities who recently returned from Liberia, said there are already “large corporations that are back or coming back,” and that the urban economy will be in dire need of support from business-savvy donors.

“Development actors tend to focus on what’s happening in rural areas, but the hardest-hit are the urban areas,” Sedgewick said. “The private sector and tech know those markets: Small businesses, getting businesses going, getting them hiring again is really the big challenge.”

Whatever the nature of the U.S. government’s conversation with SVCF on Wednesday, development stakeholders agree the growing tech philanthropy sector has much to contribute to the foreign aid landscape in West Africa.

What should Silicon Valley’s role be in the recovery from Ebola in West Africa? Share your views by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.