March 12, 2014
What a company does with its own money is between their management and stockholders. While I’m all about creating new markets, but Facebook’s plan to build 11,000 drones to bring the internet to Africa strikes me as a head scratcher. Now drones seem to be on everybody’s mind of late; and, if you’re a major Al-Queda operative, in your living room, so I kind of get their desire to shell out $60m for a drone company of their very own( I guess having a nicer car than Bezos –or your own private island like Ellison—is just so 20th century). Owning a drone that can bring your drink out to the pool would certainly be a “first on the block” type of thing, but to deliver web access the Dark Continent is something altogether different. While Zuckerberg’s intentions may be good, on a continent that has had over 200 military coups since 1960, perhaps being able to friend someone in Nairobi isn’t the most pressing issue in these folk’s lives.
Don’t get me wrong, on a continent where 48% of its sub-Saharan residents live on less the $1.25 a day, any help is welcome, but if my village doesn’t have electricity I probably am not going to be selling the family goat to buy a new Mac. Isn’t this really the problem that many of those new to the whole philanthropy thing run into? You want to give something really cool but what is needed often tends to be a little more basic, and who is going to get any decent press coverage out of that? I’m not saying that Facebook’s intentions aren’t completely altruistic, but when 9 out of 10 of the countries with the highest infant mortality rates in the world share the same geographic neighborhood, a hospital or two might be a little more appropriate.
I think these disjointed philanthropic efforts are usually the result of someone not doing enough homework, and that is understandable. If your were a brand new billionaire with a hankering to do good, and some serious spare change burning a hole in your pocket, you probably just instruct a few of your minions to find a project to show the rest of your high tech buddies how much you care. Imagine your excitement when they come back and tell you 2/3 of the world doesn’t have Internet access. Add to that the fact that cool guys like Bono, Ben Affleck and George Clooney are really into Africa so let’s buy a few drones, put out a press release and let the accolades roll in. Of course, Bono, Ben and George have actually been there—multiple times—so they have a little better handle on the situation on the ground that you do. But, you’ve already written the check to the drone company so all you can do is suck it up and press on.
Although Facebook’s corporate heart seems to be the right place, I’m not sure about the efficacy their plan. For example, are the warring factions in North and South Sudan going to solve their problems via their new ability to order a copy of Roberts Rules of Order from Amazon? Or just who exactly will be benefitting from drone delivered internet access in an area that houses 9 of the 10 lowest rated countries for literacy rates? I guess it all depends on what their ultimate goal is to be in this endeavor. If it is to garner more media coverage and to bask in the hosannas of humanitarian organizations like the UN—“Gee, what good guys those Facebook people are bringing the internet to the continent”—they will certainly succeed on that level. As for impact of drone delivered internet access on the continent’s residents, one has to wonder if they might not have wanted a more practical gift.