How this Corporate Funder is Narrowing the Digital Divide for Refugees

It goes without saying that the needs of the world’s refugees are many. While we’re still dismayed at the continued general lack of response by major donors and funding shortfalls persist, we’re hopeful about the surge of positive movement in the field lately. And it seems that much of that funding is coming from unexpected sources and supporting surprising but much-needed projects.

The Vodafone Foundation’s Instant Charge project is just one of the more interesting recent undertakings in the refugee funding landscape.  

Working in collaboration with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Vodaphone’s Instant Charge program is addressing the ongoing infrastructure problems at refugee camps in Europe. While these camps are located in areas with sufficient mobile coverage, they lack the infrastructure needed to for refugees to charge their phones.

Related: Vodafone Americas Foundation: Grants for Global Development

Vodaphone is solving that problem with Instant Charge, a portable charging station that uses a generator as well as additional power sources like solar energy, to charge up to 66 cell phones simultaneously. The kit, which includes USB charging ports and cables, weighs about 50 pounds (23 kg), is water resistant, and can be set up in less than 10 minutes.

This isn’t a case of a funder offering up what it thinks is a critical solution to one of the many pressing challenges faced by refugees. Instant Charge was developed in response to a simple, but common question from refugees: “Where can I charge my mobile?” Vodafone and the UNHCR are zeroing in on refugees arriving in Europe, because as it turns out, most of them have smartphones rather than what are referred to as feature phones. Some feature phones have the ability to access the internet while lacking the advanced capabilities and functionality of smartphones.

The utility of Vodafone’s Instant Charge programs and others like it is bound to be questioned. Why focus on a mobile device charging when there are so many other pressing challenges like the depleted food, water, and medical supplies? The answer to that question is complex. But there is no doubt that mobile devices serve as a crucial line of communication between refugees and loved ones. They are also a source of critical information, like how to apply for protected status or learning key phrases in their host country’s language to break down communication barriers.

Vodafone isn’t alone in its push for connectivity in Europe’s growing refugee population. Cisco has joined in with its TacOps team, which is currently installing Wi-Fi networks and device charging stations at some 20 sites along the refugee migration route in Southern and Central Europe.

Google.org has done so as well, with its $5.3 million grant to launch NetHope’s Project Reconnect, which is providing 25,000 centrally administered Chromebooks to NGOs supporting refugees in Germany. The goal of this project is to help refugees rebuild their lives by facilitating access to education and other important information resources.

Related: How Do Chromebooks Help Refugees? Google.org Has an Answer to That

As the largest humanitarian crisis in modern history continues to drag on, not only are the mid- and long-term needs of refugees being considered, but those that fall outside of the basic necessities group are also coming into sharper focus. And it comes as no surprise that the tech and telecommunications industries are jumping onboard.