From AKDN to Google

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Aleem Walji. Photo: Courtesy Aleem Walji.
Aleem Walji. Photo: Courtesy Aleem Walji.

Aleem Walji recently joined Google.org (www.google.org) the philanthropic arm of Google, the world’s largest Internet search engine company, as part of the Global Development team. He brings to Google a broad range of insight in social development drawing on both, his education and his former role as Chief Executive Officer of the Aga Khan Foundation in Syria. The Foundation is an agency of the Aga Khan Development Network (www.akdn.org ). Walji gives us his thoughts on the transition from the AKDN, a network of development agencies, to one that is just starting.

You must be enthusiastic about the prospect of being involved in the founding stages of a social development programme for a global organisation?

This is a very exciting opportunity which comes with enormous responsibility in helping set direction for Google.org. Our challenge is to leverage Google’s strengths around information and building scalable platforms in ways that can help alleviate poverty in the developing world. Our greatest asset is our people, and their “healthy scepticism towards the impossible.”

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is something that many organisations have worked into their structure. Is Google’s approach different? 

Our approach goes beyond CSR. Our founders created Google.org because they had a vision to use the strengths of Google to help humanity and make the world a better place. They have honoured their commitment by devoting approximately 1% of Google’s yearly profits and equity, as well as significant employee time to philanthropy. Google.org is a hybrid philanthropy which means we can engage in grant-making like many other foundations, but in addition, Google.org can also invest in breakthrough ideas and technologies that may generate a positive financial return. We can also engage in policy and advocacy which gives us tremendous flexibility.

Farmers with Walji and other AKDN staff in a field in Salamieh, Syria. This farm uses drip irrigation to improve crop yield and save water. The AKDN Water Management Programme has scaled up to include hundreds of farmers since its inception in 2003. Photo: Courtesy Aleem Walji.
Farmers with Walji and other AKDN staff in a field in Salamieh, Syria. This farm uses drip irrigation to improve crop yield and save water. The AKDN Water Management Programme has scaled-up to include hundreds of farmers since its inception in 2003. Photo: Courtesy Aleem Walji.

Do you see some synergies in the future with AKDN, whose efforts in the development field are both wide ranging and deeply integrated in the areas they operate?

AKDN and Google.org are committed to empowering people to act and make decisions that will improve the quality of their lives. We are just ‘enablers’, we believe citizens drive social change. Both organisations share a belief in the power of entrepreneurship and we believe the private sector has a critical role to play in creating vibrant economies that ultimately sustain social and economic development. And our geographic interests overlap in Eastern Africa and South Asia.

Can you elaborate on the projects outlined under the Global Development team?

We want to increase the flow of capital to small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the developing world because they drive economic growth and create jobs, which leads to a more equitable distribution of wealth. We want to demonstrate that SMEs can be profitable and that, in places like Africa and India there can be positive financial and economic returns on investment.

We will also focus on improving the reach and quality of essential public services (such as health, education, water and sanitation) given their disproportionate impact on the poor. We believe in the power of information in empowering citizens, governments, and civil society groups to hold one another to account and make better, more informed decisions.

In Syria,the Water Management Project of the Aga Khan Development Network used a variety of techniques including tunneling to conserve water and brings crops to market earlier in order to increase incomes to farmers. Photo: Courtesy Aleem Walji.
In Syria, the Water Management Programme of the Aga Khan Development Network uses a variety of techniques including tunnelling to conserve water and bring crops to market earlier as a way of increasing the income of farmers. Photo: Courtesy Aleem Walji.

Google has a global reach and a solid reputation. What can we expect from Google’s entry into the social development arena?

We have an opportunity to shine a light on a number of issues that affect our world and affect large numbers of people, particularly the poor. We take this responsibility very seriously. It is essential for us to figure out where and on what issues we can bring the greatest value given our strengths and resources as a company.

We will focus our efforts on five major initiatives: i) Predict and prevent emerging infectious diseases before they become local, regional, or global crises by identifying ‘hot spots’ and providing early warning; ii) Use information to empower citizens, [service] providers, and policy makers to improve the delivery of essential public services such as education, health, water, and sanitation; iii) Fuel the growth of small and medium enterprises by increasing the flow of risk capital to the developing world; iv) Create utility scale electricity from clean renewable energy sources that is cheaper than electricity from coal; and, v) Seed innovation, demonstrate technology, inform the debate, and stimulate market demand to foster mass commercialisation of plug-in vehicles. These are the initiatives in which we will invest our resources as we make our entry into the field of social development.Word

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