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Zuckerberg, UN seek to bring internet to refugee camps

Facebook founder also partners with Bill and Melinda Gates in bid for universal web access by 2020

Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, right, during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington, Wednesday, September 23, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TED S. WARREN)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, talks with Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, right, during a gathering of CEOs and other executives at Microsoft's main campus in Redmond, Washington, Wednesday, September 23, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TED S. WARREN)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Saturday announced that his company was partnering with the United Nations for refugees to bring internet access to refugee camps.

Zuckerberg, along with Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, also threw his weight behind the goal of bringing internet access to everyone in the world by 2020.

The pledge comes amid a United Nations effort to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, a goal set on Friday during a special summit at the global body.

The internet became commonplace in developed countries in the 1990s, but UN officials estimate that half the world does not have reliable access — especially women and girls, whose education is vital to development.

“When people have access to the tools and knowledge of the internet, they have access to opportunities that make life better for all of us,” said a declaration signed by Zuckerberg and Bill and Melinda Gates, who have devoted their wealth to philanthropy.

“The internet belongs to everyone. It should be accessible by everyone,” the declaration said.

Zuckerberg, swapping his trademark hoodie for a suit and tie as he appeared at the United Nations, said that for every 10 people connected to the internet, one is lifted out of poverty.

“The internet is more than just a network of machines; it is the key driver of social and economic progress in our time,” he told a luncheon at the UN headquarters attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The 31-year-old entrepreneur pointed to the role of the internet in empowering otherwise voiceless people in places such as Syria, where civil war is producing a refugee exodus.

“A ‘like’ or a post won’t stop a tank or a bullet, but when people are connected, we have the chance to build a common global community with a shared understanding — and that’s a powerful force,” he said.

He estimated that spreading the internet could also bring affordable education to 600 million children who would otherwise go unschooled.

Zuckerberg said Facebook was partnering with the UN agency for refugees to bring the internet to refugee camps. “Connectivity will help refugees better access support from the aid community and maintain their links to families,” he said.

Addressing the UN Private Sector Forum, he said wide internet access “needs to be at the heart of the global development strategy” to address new challenges and needs of the new generation.

In the long term, Zuckerberg said, Facebook will help UN agencies develop tools to track progress toward implementing the development goals.

“Data can help us make smarter decisions but only if you can interpret it quickly and with confidence, so we want to help the UN make decisions that will advance our goals,” he said.

Other signatories included Jimmy Wales, co-founder of free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, and U2 frontman Bono on behalf of his One anti-poverty campaign.

Jamie Drummond, global executive director of One which spearheaded the push, called on every country to come up with an “urgent plan” to meet the internet access goals.

The campaigners did not announce funding on their own, but the United Nations has said that meeting the new global goals will cost between $3.5 and $5 trillion per year.

Vital to reach girls

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on Saturday launched its own roadmap, which put a top priority on improving the health and education for girls.

Releasing the report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that more than $25 billion has been committed so far to meeting the goals, led by $3.3 billion from the United States and large pledges from Canada, Germany and Sweden.

Melinda Gates, speaking to reporters in advance of the launch, said that the health and education of girls was critical to anti-poverty efforts and that the issue had not been sufficiently emphasized in the UN’s previous Millennium Development Goals.

“When we look at investing our own money or asking governments to invest their money… we have to make sure that those investments make a difference,” she said.

For a girl, “for every year she is educated, she increases her income by 20 percent when she goes out to get a job,” Gates said.

Gates said that family planning was also “hugely important” to fighting poverty by ensuring that parents can adequately provide for children.

But Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization, acknowledged that cultural factors posed a challenge to helping girls.

“Many of the issues that affect women and girls are not talked about — violence against women — and this is not only in developing countries,” she said.

AP contributed to this report.

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