By Lauren Woodman, CEO, NetHope
It was September 2014, and NetHope had been hearing from our member NGOs working in West Africa about the desperate need for improved connectivity in the rural districts of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The Ebola outbreak was ravaging the region, and the lack of connectivity in hard-hit areas was making it difficult for NGOs and community health organizations to communicate with national governments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization.
NetHope first began socializing the need to support our members and our UN counterparts with our partners like Microsoft, Cisco, Facebook, Google, USAID, and The Patterson Foundation. As partners mobilized to support responding organizations, Microsoft learned about Paul Allen’s interest in addressing the outbreak. They encouraged his representatives to reach out to NetHope.
My colleague Frank Schott and I went to meet with Mr. Allen’s representatives and shared our challenges with internet connectivity in the region. They were quick studies: at the end of the first meeting they asked us to put together a proposal for them.
Under normal circumstances, the needs assessment and proposal development would take four to six weeks, but the Ebola outbreak had imposed a critical urgency. With reported infection rates skyrocketing, and no reporting out of some the more likely hardest hit rural areas, we recommended that Paul G. Allen Philanthropies establish an investment fund that could be drawn upon as needs were identified. We offered to meet with them on a weekly basis to explain what needs had been identified and how we were addressing them with the Allen investment fund.
I vividly recall an Allen representative saying, “Mr. Allen often wants more information than you are giving us, but we understand that if we don’t do anything for six weeks, it may be too late. We will take your proposal to him.” Two days later we got the call: Mr. Allen had agreed to our ambitious plan to provide connectivity solutions to NGOs, community health organizations, and government offices in the region. It was a bold and trusting move, building on his deep empathy for the affected communities, his focus on addressing the challenges, and his understanding of the role technology could play. Surely, he made other key investments throughout the Ebola virus outbreak, but for NetHope members, he stepped in at a critical time to meet an urgent need that allowed responders to do their best work.
The new-found connectivity solutions confirmed what many health professionals feared: infection rates in rural areas were high and spreading fast. Fortunately, thanks to the heroic work of health care providers in West Africa, enabled by a connected response effort, the outbreak was arrested.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened if Mr. Allen had not made the investments that he did. Perhaps someone else would have provided the support; perhaps organizations would have figured out how to work without the critical connectivity Paul G. Allen Philanthropies provided. But as he did in so many other areas, he acted quickly and decisively, leveraging his own knowledge and commitment to make a difference. I, for one, am convinced that tens of thousands of lives were saved through his foresight, responsiveness and generosity.
All of us at NetHope mourn the loss of Mr. Allen and send our deepest condolences to his family and colleagues. The world has lost a true leader and thoughtful philanthropist.
Vulcan and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies reported providing over $100 million to combat the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.