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Crowdfunding Global Health

Digital-Diversity-BannerAccording to Wikipedia, crowdfunding is “the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet”. This relatively new phenomenon has helped bring all manner of products and projects to market, and now global health is joining in. In this installment of Digital Diversity, Layla McCay – a member of our Media and Research Team – explains how.

Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from kiwanja.net featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives.

By Layla McCay

The Internet is changing the way ordinary people do philanthropy. Until recently, if we wanted to donate our money to help people in low-income countries, pretty-much our only option was to contribute to the funds of an NGO or charity working in a particular field.Rarely did we get to direct precisely how our $20 would be spent. But donation is getting specific, and it’s getting personal – and it’s thanks in part to the rise of crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding, which means getting a group of people to contribute towards funding a certain goal is not a new concept. In 1885 the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal was famously crowdfunded by more than 160,000 donors. But the Internet has brought new scale and reach to the challenge of crowdfunding, moving beyond the readership of the 1885 New York World newspaper, and out into every corner of the world.

Today’s crowdfunding zeitgeist is driven by technology. It combines the increasing access and reach of the Internet, convenient, secure payment services, and the connecting powers of social media, to inspire and motivate young fundraisers to donate – and in particular, to donate to very specific, personally-chosen causes. People are logging onto websites like KickStarter, scrolling through various pitches, identifying creative projects with which they feel a connection, and then with a few clicks, sending their money to help finance these initiatives. Others are logging onto microfinancing websites like Kiva and scrolling through pitches to contribute their money to loans that will help specific people in low-income settings build and grow their businesses. They donate knowing that their money isn’t going into a big pot of funds, but directly to a person they have chosen to help, and they get updates on how it is spent. And, in the case of Kiva, they usually get their money back.

The personal connection that attracts people so much to crowdfunding websites is now starting to be harnessed for global healthcare. Across the world the model is catching on, with non-profits like Watsi, whose tagline, indicatively, is “turning passion, ramen, and code into a movement to provide healthcare to every person on the planet”. So far, they have helped nearly three thousand. Healthcare facilities in need of funds to deliver treatment to their patients are turning to crowdfunding platforms like these, particularly for less ‘popular’ treatments that may not be urgent or life threatening, but have huge impact on people’s lives, like treating burns, or repairing obstetric fistulae – holes in the birth canal caused while giving birth. Instead of sending general donations to charities, people are being inspired to directly contribute to Gasper in Kenya’s foot surgery, paying for Maudeline in Haiti to have heart surgery, Vivian in Kenya to have a safe birth, and far more.

I caught up with two crowdfunding innovators at this year’s TEDMED conference.

“Crowdfunding is so remarkable because it’s ultimately about creating a new form of human connection. It’s creating empathy across the widest barriers you could ever imagine and it’s helping change lives,” says Mark Arnoldy, CEO of Possible, a non-profit healthcare company operating in Nepal, funded by that government to deliver healthcare within the government’s infrastructure. But Possible found there weren’t enough funds for patients who needed to be referred to their partner hospitals for more complex treatment. So they set up crowdfundhealth.org, profiling their patients alongside the treatment they needed and the facility to contribute online. Before long, they found their approach had caught the imagination of donors, and the funds were flowing in. Their month-long campaign last year raised over $100,000 which treated 123 patients. Now they have treated 361 people, and are one of the organisations posting on kangu.org to crowdfund safe birth care for specific mothers, like Omika, who hopes crowdfunding will enable her to deliver her baby in a hospital. As Mark Arnoldy says:

People used to say what you do is too expensive, it’s not possible. That you can’t deliver complex care or complex surgeries to people who live in rural, isolated places. And we’ve heard that for so many years. But what’s remarkable about crowdfunding is that it’s disproving that

Samahope are also exploring crowdfunding health, but they take a different approach. Rather than profiling individual patients on their website, they profile the doctors, who list descriptions along with the costs associated with conducting ‘unpopular’ but important procedures, and encourage people to contribute to funding them. On their website you can track how many dollars each doctor is away from performing their next procedure. You can choose to help pay for Zambia’s only reconstructive plastic surgeon to treat burns victims, some of Somaliland’s first female doctors to perform repairs after birth injuries, and more. Samahope have funded over 500 treatments, and have nearly 3000 active donors.

Watsi.com screenshot of people whose care has been crowdfunded by Possible
Watsi.com screenshot of people whose care has been crowdfunded by Possible

Clearly, the crowdfunding model in isolation is not the whole answer to funding healthcare in low-income countries. For starters, investment is needed not just in individual treatments or patients, but in staff and systems and infrastructure, and it needs to be sustainable, strategic, and large scale. Crowdfunding adopts a ‘who can tug your heartstrings (and purse strings) most effectively’ approach rather than using a needs assessment to strategically identify where limited funds can be most efficiently and effectively used to address population needs.

But there is also space for new funding approaches. In a health system with sparse resources, not everyone can receive the treatment they need, and particularly in developing countries, donations are welcomed. But many of these donations are earmarked, often to prevent and treat highly publicized diseases like HIV/AIDS or malaria, whereas less money flows in to help people who have health conditions that richer countries, for diverse reasons, have deemed lower priority. Crowdfunding has the potential to give a much-needed boost to these less ‘sexy’ health problems, and the approach can empower local healthcare providers to access funds for their specific, local priorities through the Internet.

Screenshot of the Samahope website
Screenshot of the Samahope website

If everyone who needed treatment featured on a crowdfunding website, the administration would likely become overwhelming and confusing, with demand for funds outstripping supply. There are questions of how to rigorously screen those who want to add their cause for crowdfunding, how to ensure the money goes to exactly where it is supposed to, and of the ethics of showcasing vulnerable people on the Internet. It is not a perfect solution.

But for the many who suffer physically, mentally and socially debilitating symptoms from illnesses that could be easily treated with funding that others across the world are ready and willing to give, the internet provides hope – and inspiration. Crowdfunding is inspiring a new generation of donors today. It may or may not emerge as a key future funding strategy for global health – but is already reaching some of the people who need help most.

Layla McCayLayla McCay is a medical doctor and global health specialist, with a special interest in global health technology and innovation. She has worked across health policy sectors, from the World Health Organization and the World Bank to International NGOs and the British Government. She teaches international health at Georgetown University. You can find her on Twitter @LaylaMcCay

Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja