USAID, IDB award crowdsourced innovation grants to aid Venezuelans

Premise Data, a BetterTogether awardee, will expand its app inside Venezuela to provide data to more than 90 organizations in the country. Photo by: Premise Data via Facebook

WASHINGTON — Four organizations working to improve conditions for Venezuelan refugees and migrants and their host communities will receive grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development in the first round of its crowdsourced innovation challenge.

USAID, IDB to fund crowdsourced solutions addressing Venezuela crisis

The BetterTogether Challenge aims to crowdsource ideas from around the world to solve problems facing those living in the Venezuela as well as refugees and migrants across Latin America.

USAID has awarded a total of $575,000 to three organizations operating inside Venezuela and one working in Colombia as a part of its BetterTogether Challenge, launched in cooperation with the Inter-American Development Bank. The project, which aims to give at least $13 million in grants, was initiated in October to accept proposals from all over the world that would address issues being faced by Venezuelans who have left their country.

“We are humble enough to know that we don’t have all the solutions,” USAID acting Administrator John Barsa told Devex. “We were open to whatever particular aspects of the Venezuelan crisis people wanted to address — so it could be access to clean water, it could be access to education, to try to help members of the diaspora find jobs. So we didn’t want to be too restrictive.”

One of the awardees is Premise Data, which will expand use of its app inside Venezuela with the goal of providing data to more than 90 organizations working in the country. The app, which pays people as independent contractors to complete tasks, was already widely used in the country, with about 40,000 users and 7,000 of those being monthly active users.

Organizations operating inside Venezuela often have difficulty determining need across the country, which has seen millions of its citizens flee its collapsed economy, skyrocketing inflation, and shortages of basic goods like food and medicine. International NGOs operating there struggle to negotiate access to the population. Daniela Rubio, project manager for Premise’s BetterTogether award, said most organizations do not have access to up-to-date, quality, and localized data.

“Because we can identify where this data comes from, we can target different regions in the country, different demographics. We’re helping them understand what this data means,” Rubio said. “It’s not just a data dump in itself. We're guiding them and going hand-to-hand with our partners. They’re going to be able to make better decisions and eventually provide better delivery of basic services.”

“We were open to whatever particular aspects of the Venezuelan crisis people wanted to address.”

— John Barsa, acting administrator, USAID

While Premise’s grant application was submitted before COVID-19 hit the country, the pandemic is limiting some forms of data collection that can be done by app users. Rubio said the company was not comfortable sending people to conduct household surveys during the pandemic, but other data collection, like mapping the location of water sources, can be done safely.

The two other organizations operating inside Venezuela were not named publicly as grantees due to security concerns. A Venezuelan engineering company will use its funds to test a solar-powered water purification system to be used in rural areas at a low cost. A separate local service organization received a grant to install, operate, and maintain water purification units under a community ownership model.

“USAID has a long history — decades of experience — working in either closed or semiclosed societies,” Barsa said. “For security reasons, we are very discreet when naming partners because while we may support, for example, civil society programs in Cuba, we don’t necessarily name who we’re working with so oppressive regimes don’t retaliate against them. So similarity for our activities within Venezuela, we don’t publicly name the organizations we’re working with for those same reasons.”

In Colombia, arts organization Voices of Venezuela will produce a series of shows that will teach Venezuelans how to access services related to visas, education, and residency and work permits, as well as how they can better integrate into society.

“Basically everything that they would need that is hard to get the answer for,” said Jason Rovig, president of Art for Impact. “Nothing is easy to access. Information can be had, but it takes such a long time trying to find the correct answer and understand it. When you can find it, it’s often written in legal terms that are difficult for the majority of us to understand.”

Voices of Venezuela will produce 72 videos by January, including explainers, interviews, and a cooking show. The organization has received most of its engagement on Facebook, and videos will also be available on YouTube.

“What’s the role of innovation in this regional migration crisis? ... The organizations, the private sector, the entrepreneurs want to be part of the response.”

— Juan Pablo Gross, private finance operations specialist, IDB Lab

BetterTogether offers awards in four tiers — $25,000, $250,000, $500,000, and $1.5 million — with the amount determined by how close an idea is to being scaled. While USAID is giving out some smaller-dollar grants, IDB’s administrative process makes it impractical to do so, according to Juan Pablo Lopez Gross, private finance operations specialist with IDB Lab. The bank, which is also providing equity and technical assistance, does not make grants to organizations working inside Venezuela, so awards made there will be funded by the $10 million that USAID is contributing to the challenge. IDB has allocated $3 million.

Barsa said that USAID has heard from other governments and partners interested in contributing to BetterTogether, although no additional funds have been formally committed. He said the challenge will continue funding proposals as long as it has money available.

Additional grant awards should be announced in the coming weeks, Lopez Gross said, including some from IDB. More than 550 completed applications have already been received, and submissions are still being accepted.

“What’s the role of innovation in this regional migration crisis? Because when people think about the migration crisis … of course the pressure is huge [on] the public sector and the governments,” Lopez Gross said. “People want to participate. The organizations, the private sector, the entrepreneurs want to be part of the response, or they want to be part of the answer, not the problem. They understand that they need to play a key role, an important role, to be part of the solution to this migration crisis.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.