A major focus of our global programs is about providing individuals around the world with access to information and communications technology (ICT) – what some still call digital inclusion or “closing the digital divide.” We aren’t a hardware infrastructure provider, so achieving the goal of increasing access requires deep partnerships. It goes beyond the nuts and bolts (or wires and airwaves) to skills, content and context. This becomes critically important in our work in communities around the world outside of the area of formal education - where we are also highlighting a large number of commitments at the Clinton Global Initiative this week.

For our community programs the objective of serving the “underserved” takes a multitude of forms, many of which I have witnessed firsthand in my travels and learned from talking to individuals who went from fearful to confident based on their participation in the programs we support through our community partners. ICT has opened doors for them in ways that are as diverse as the communities in which they live. There are two programs I would like to focus on that show different perspectives of the skills, content and context components, both of which will have a spotlight on them during this hectic week in New York.

Community Technology Access

One of our CGI commitments, made in 2008, is the Community Technology Access (CTA) program. Working with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), this program is increasing access to technology in the most challenging of settings – refugee camps. This is a CONTEXT that unfortunately too many people experience (over 40 million right now) but one that the vast majority of us on the planet have no concept of. The camps are remote with intermittent on non-existent infrastructure and connectivity. The camps frame the world view of their residents not just for a few weeks, but often for years or decades – in fact 15 years on average. Children may grow to adulthood in a camp knowing very little of the world outside.

The fundamental goal of CTA is to give people the SKILLS and CONTENT needed to pursue opportunities inside and outside the camp, whether it is education, entrepreneurship, communication or otherwise. The key technology innovation of the CTA program is standardized solar-powered computer classrooms and labs with the capability of handling the rugged conditions of the camps. To date, CTA sights have been opened in Rwanda and Bangladesh, with 26 additional locations planned through 2010.

Women in Technology

We’re celebrating another program this week: the Women In Technology (WIT) initiative. In fact, Microsoft is being honored by the Institute of International Education (IIE) for our contribution to WIT at their gala event. The real honor goes, of course, to the local organizations and program participants in nine countries in the Middle East and North Africa region. I have had the privilege of seeing WIT programs first hand in the UAE and Saudi Arabia and have been consistently impressed with how these women are driving change.  They believe in the power of technology and understand how it can fundamentally change their ability to become meaningful contributors in their society at a large scale.  This week I was fortunate to have the opportunities to meet three participants in the program here in New York and came away with a similar sense of optimism –the future is safe in the hands of these very young yet powerful women.

Their experience reflects that of nearly 10,000 other women from societies where women struggle for equality at many levels. The particular focus of WIT is to provide the SKILLS needed in the job market and to support women entrepreneurs – and the key to success has been working through more than 60 local organizations to ensure that both the CONTENT and CONTEXT are appropriate across a very diverse region. In addition to its impact, the program illustrates a public-private partnership between Microsoft, IIE and the Middle East Partnership Initiative to leverage resources, knowledge and opportunities for WIT success.

I want to close by saying that both of these programs represent one of our fundamental principles – stay local. I don’t mean to say there aren’t best practices that apply broadly or opportunities for scale at the regional or global level, but you will never be successful if programs aren’t appropriate for the specific community. Through our staff and partners around the world we are able to identify and support programs that remain true to this principle.

Front row: Najla Abou Hamzeh (Lebanon), Khadija Ait Kaddour (Morocco), Salma Yassin, (Interpreter), Rana Hadi (Iraq).

Back row: Akhtar Badshah (Microsoft), Karin Eisele, (Executive Director, IIE West Coast), Peggy Blumenthal (COO and Executive Vice President, IIE), Pamela Passman (Microsoft), Zaki Khoury (Microsoft), Heather Ramsey (Director, Women in Technology & Global Partnerships, IIE) Kit Bartels (U.S. Department of State, Middle East Partnership Initiative).

Photo courtesy of Lyn Hughes for the Institute of International Education