As streams of refugees fleeing violence in Syria continue to mount arduous crossings to reach safe borders, American tech companies have increasingly taken up the mantle of providing aid through donations, food, and supplies.
Responding to a call from President Obama, who has said that Americans have a “moral responsibility” to help families who are forced from their homes, companies such as Kickstarter, Twitter, and the food delivery service Instacart unveiled partnerships with traditional relief agencies on Tuesday.
Some programs are fairly traditional – Twitter and Starbucks are soliciting donations from people who use their services – but others may point to a new effort by tech companies to engage with a pressing global issue – such as a partnership between Instacart and the United Nations’ refugee agency that allows customers to donate food this week and an Airbnb program that provides housing credits to local aid workers.
"Americans from all different parts of the country have seen the suffering that is going on and asked themselves how best we can help – and I think it’s just up to each company themselves to come up with an idea how best to respond," Jason Goldman, the White House’s chief digital officer, told TechCrunch on Tuesday.
Observers say campaigns that harness the power of social media and viral content – such as the outpouring of support after users shared a photo of a three year-old Syrian boy who was found drowned on a beach off the Turkish coast – often serve to raise awareness and humanize an issue for people located thousands of miles away.
"Engaging people is a good thing. The more you can start a process that can in turn press states – governments – to be more responsive, that’s a positive development," says James Cavallaro, a law professor at Stanford University who is a commissioner of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
He points to ongoing research on the phenomenon of “slacktivism” – as online campaigns such as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are sometimes known. Such campaigns have often come under criticism as little more than an empty "like" or thumbs up on social media, with little chance of users engaging further with an issue. But that’s not always the case.
"Social research shows that people that engage in slacktivism by quickly liking something, those people are likely to continue to get involved in those issues in the future," Professor Cavallaro says. "It turns out that slacktivism isn’t necessarily transformative, but it can start a virtual cycle where they are more engaged."
Popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter has made the refugee crisis its first non-creative project. For the next week, the site is partnering directly with the UN refugee agency to offer users a wide range of ways to help, from a $15 donation that could buy a sleeping bag to $600 that could help pay for a child’s education. Kickstarter will also donate its 5 percent fee to the aid effort.
"Considering the scale of the situation and the ask from the White House, we felt like we had a responsibility to step up," Yancey Strickler, the company’s co-founder and chief executive told the Wall Street Journal. "We want to use these opportunities to do good if we can."
Efforts to provide aid through donations and financial support instead of traditional physical goods such as tents and food are growing internationally among aid groups, ComputerWeekly reports.
Digital technology can play a number of roles in addressing challenging situations such as a large scale influx of refugees, the magazine notes. Aid workers are increasingly using mobile devices instead of clipboards to quickly take down refugees’ information, while physicians in Jordan are able to aid on-site doctors with a difficult surgery via video call.
At some refugee camps – such as the Zaatari camp in Jordan – the UN refugee agency is also providing local SIM cards so refugees can be connected to their families and obtain assistance.
On Tuesday, the White House praised US tech companies for creating "a novel way for citizens to contribute what they can to #AidRefugees," in a blog post, using a hashtag it has employed to encourage donations.
But in recent months, Mr. Obama has faced a steady drumbeat of criticism over his handling of the refugee crisis – which has displaced an estimated 12 million people from Syria, the White House says – from some human rights advocates and lawmakers, who remain conflicted about how best to address it.
The White House has provided $4.5 billion in aid, while proposing to increase a cap on refugees allowed into the US each year to 100,000 over the next two years. The administration has also discussed admitting an additional 10,000 refugees from Syria in the next year.
The tech companies' responses were no accident, with the administration actively recruiting figures from the tech world, including Megan Smith, a former Google executive who became Chief Technology Officer last September, and Mr. Goldman, a former executive at Twitter.
Professor Cavallaro contrasted the administration’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis with the debate that ensued last summer over unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala who made the journey across the US-Mexico border. In that case, the White House proposed allowing the children to apply for refugee status, a move which might also discourage them from crossing the border illegally, the New York Times reported.
As someone involved in human rights work outside of the US government, he doesn’t typically comment on the specifics of American policies. But, raising awareness about the plight of many Middle Eastern refugees struggling to leave their war-torn homelands could have positive consequences, despite ongoing debates about whether social media campaigns lead to further activism.
"It’s a very difficult question to address," he says. "If you critique the administration for apparently trying to shift the state responsibilities [to] private initiatives, you run the risk of alienating what could be a helpful way of engaging the public."
[Editor's note: This article has been changed from its original version to more accurately reflect James Cavallaro's work.]