TECH SILENCE

Why Isn't Silicon Valley Doing More to Fight Ebola?

Witnessing arguably the worst public health crisis of the 21st century, the industry that claims to be changing the world is nowhere to be found. Where have all the tech titans gone?

10.08.14 9:45 AM ET

The executives of Silicon Valley like to boast that they’re changing the world for the better. But faced with one of the most complex public health crises of the 21st century—the Ebola epidemic—the giants of Silicon Valley have been largely absent.

“We have not received any gifts from corporations in Silicon Valley for MSF’s response to the Ebola outbreak,” a spokesperson from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) told The Daily Beast. “In general, the number of corporations supporting this response has been relatively low.”

Instead, it’s been left to the tech industry’s graybeards to step in and fight the epidemic, which has already resulted in more than 7,000 cases and 3,000 deaths. Two weeks ago, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation pledged $5 million for the cause. Last month, Microsoft co-founders Paul Allen and Bill Gates pledged $20 million and $50 million, respectively.

Google has chipped in a few hundred thousand. The other big tech firms, even less. As the epidemic rages and cases pop up in the United States and Europe, the industry that claims to be changing the world is nowhere to be found. Where have all the tech titans gone?

Anyone who doubts Silicon Valley’s world-changing ethos need look no further than the 10,000-word piece exploring it in The New Yorker or the comedy built around mocking it on HBO.

World changes, as evidenced by events like the Arab Spring, are increasingly driven by social action. So in some ways, Silicon Valley’s self-importance is justified. With bright minds and billions in cash, you can pledge to change the world and actually plan to do it. An unprecedented Ebola outbreak threatening both global health and world security seems like a good time to make good on that promise. But if Silicon Valley executives are planning to make a move, they’re waiting an incredibly long time to do so.

In the seven months since the epidemic began, Ebola has spread across borders, countries, and now continents. Once a distant nightmare in a foreign land, the deadly virus made its way to the United States via Dallas last week. But our struggle at home is multiplied a thousandfold in West Africa. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of cases and deaths—which now stand at 7,000 and 3,000—nearly doubles every few weeks. It’s an unprecedented global health disaster that will take billions of dollars, thousands of people, and an infinite number of supplies to contain.

The world has known this for quite some time.

On March 23, the World Health Organization published a notification of an Ebola outbreak in Guinea on its websites. On August 8, with the cases increasing at a rapid rate, WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” Four weeks later, at a U.N. emergency Ebola meeting, world leaders publicly called on their nations for support.

The acting president of the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, described a public health situation in Liberia so appallingly underfunded that health workers were turning away gravely ill patients at their gates. “We don’t want to live in a world where a father, bearing his sick daughter, is turned away from treatment,” Power told the assembly. “It’s against everything that we believe in and stand for. It’s wrong.”

Just days after the assembly, the death toll in Liberia would soar to a number greater than the 20 previous Ebola outbreaks combined. But in the moment, there was reason to hope. Days before the mid-September meeting, the U.S. government had set the tone for member states intervention with a pledge to send 3,000 troops and an estimated $175 million to aid in the fight. Four days earlier, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation did the same for the private sector with a donation of $50 million to the fight. At the meeting, Power commended the two for “leading the charge” and urged others to follow suit. “Let us rise together and confront this head on,” she said.

In the three weeks since that call to action, a small number of nations, organizations, and companies has answered the call. But nowhere near enough. Of the nearly $1 billion the United Nations estimates will be needed to curb the epidemic, the world has delivered only 26 percent. The head of the UNMEER, the mission to combat Ebola, has already requested $1 billion more. For many governments, corporations, and individuals, these numbers are startling. For Silicon Valley, once called the “greatest creation of wealth in the history of the world,” they’re breakfast.

In an email about its support for Ebola relief, Google, whose net worth tops $350 billion, said it had “recently donated $500,000 to three organizations responding on the front lines to the Ebola Crisis.” In a phone interview, a spokesperson from Apple, valued at close to $600 billion, could not offer any information about donations made to fight the Ebola epidemic. In a follow-up email, the spokesperson highlighted the company’s matching gifts program—an incentive in which the company will match an employee’s donation to a charity up to $10,000 per year.

Other large players in Silicon Valley, ranging from tech overlords like Facebook and eBay to newcomers like WhatsApp and GoPro declined to comment. But if the tech world isn’t pulling its weight in this battle, it is not necessarily alone. A corporate donation tracker run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce shows a total of $9.76 million in cash and additional kind donations donated by all American corporations to Ebola relief thus far. Many of these donors are offering specific resources they have on hand. Chevron has donated two ambulances, Coca-Cola water and medical supplies, 3M 1 million respirators, and Clorox 12,000 bottles of bleach.

The response is especially disappointing given Silicon Valley’s powerful philanthropic track record. Newbie GoPro announced a donation of $500 million to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation this week, joining a $1 billion donation from Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla. According to data from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen each reportedly gave more than $200 million to nonprofits last year. Google’s philanthropic arm, Google.org, reportedly donates $100 million in a grants each year to a variety of important causes ranging from human trafficking and child abuse to improving computer science education and empowering girls. Cisco founders Leonard Bosack and Sandy Lerner have reportedly given 70 percent of the $170 million they earned to animal welfare. When Silicon Valley is passionate about something, it shows up in dollar signs.

The absence of public press releases or news stories about other big Silicon Valley donations to the Ebola fight still leaves other possibilities. Could they be donating in secret? But the theory, already suspect given the positive press that philanthropy garners, is further challenged by the charities themselves. Among those The Daily Beast could reach, including the U.N. Foundation, Save the Children USA, the International Rescue Commission, UNICEF, and MSF, the only donations from Silicon Valley came from Hewlett-Packard and Google.

Kate Dodson, Vice President of Global Health for the United Nations Foundation, is watching from the inside. “We haven’t seen a huge influx of donations from corporations,” she said. “While Americans are very generous and give when there is need, many don’t have a personal connection to West Africa and have never experienced Ebola.” Dodson says the support thus far pales in comparison to what was offered for other disasters, such as the earthquake in Haiti.

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Beyond large bank accounts, Silicon Valley's leaders have massive audiences of people at their fingertips. In recent months, they’ve shown support for crowdsourcing missions that utilize their own resources for good. One such campaign, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, was so successful it won the hearts of the tech-world big wigs themselves; Mark Zuckerberg, among others, participated. With top-notch designers, developers, and producers, they can even transform their own platforms. Apple, for example, has done several iTunes takeovers in which the home screen is themed to raise money for charities such as Breast Cancer research.

And while a source privy to Silicon Valley’s philanthropic endeavors hinted that a big announcement is in the works, every day without one can be catastrophic. In the time weeks since the U.N. meeting, the numbers of those affected by Ebola have doubled. Until the epidemic is brought under control, the CDC predicts the numbers will continue to climb at that rate.

In daily calls with the media, CDC Director Thomas Frieden reiterates that we know how to stop the epidemic. But as supplies run out, safety practices go out the window and the virus spreads further. If anyone was made for solving a problem this big, it’s an industry built on ingenuity.

Update: Following the publishing of this article, Médecins Sans Frontières informed The Daily Beast that it has received confirmation of a “forthcoming gift from Google.”