A refugee camp is the last place you'd look for cutting-edge technology. Such privileges are usually reserved for suits in snug office buildings on the busy streets of world capitals.
Yet in camps in Darfur, Sudan, and Dadaab, Kenya, housing hundreds of thousands of displaced people, tech firms are starting to partner up with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other NGOs to bring wireless Internet to aid workers, and computing power to help refugees communicate with the outside world.
If you dig a little, it turns out that a healthy contingent of technologists are devoted to bringing the best of computing and IT to help NGOs in their work.
Google Inc. earned criticism from shareholders recently for diverting 1 per cent of profits to charities fighting poverty in Africa. They argued that that money should be reinvested in the company for the sake of growth rather than "throwing it away" on charity work.
With typical Google aplomb, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin responded by creating a completely new company, the Google Foundation at Google.org, to which they donate their money in order to fund NGOs of their choice.
They also give free advertising to selected non-profits like Room to Read and UNICEF through their Google Grants program.
The diversion of technology capital to the greater good doesn't fit people's notions of Silicon Valley's legendary greed and wealth. Yet Microsoft, to which Google's incredible growth and brash business style is most often compared, has also made a commitment to the social sector via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Gateses were profiled on the cover of Time Magazine last month as persons of the year, yet many still dismiss his altruism as a PR move to deflect criticism from his monopolistic company.
If this is true, and mounting social pressure caused Gates to invest his personal wealth in a socially responsible way, that wouldn't change the fact that the move could result in very real benefits for the health care and eduction projects the foundation funds.
Inventor and long-time technology critic Nicholas Negroponte is the head of MIT's eclectic Media Lab. In June 2005, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he announced the release of the $100 laptop, designed exclusively for the developing world.
Brazil has already pre-ordered a million units, and Argentina, Chile and Thailand are next in line. It's not clear whether the cheap computers will have the desired effect or lie unused in warehouses, but the concept is a good starting point.
In Toronto, an informal organization called Social Tech Brewing connects people over beers to strategize about the interface between cutting-edge technology and the not-for-profit world.
The group maintains links to a sister organization in Vancouver and to the much more comprehensive 501 Tech Clubs in the States (501c3 being the tax-code moniker for NGOs in the U.S.) organized through the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (N-TEN). N-TEN also offers more formally structured conferences and resources, including highly successful Web seminars (webinars) on everything from fundraising over the Web to using blogs as a force for social change.
It's easy to see technology as providing nothing more than iPods and flat-screens. But think of it as a force for change; it's as important to NGOs as it is to Bay Street.