Edtech tools can help developing countries with UNICEF money

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Global edtech startups can apply for $9 million in funding from the United Nations to develop their products – as long as they improve education in developing countries around the world.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, is planning to fund 50 to 60 startups in 135 developing countries to receive around $50,000 each. Products that will be considered include learning tools for youth, real-time communication software, or infrastructure to enhance connectivity to educational resources.

The products will be available anywhere in the world, including the United States, according to Christopher Fabian, UNICEF Innovation co-lead.

“What we’re looking for are [companies] that are working on similar problems, but in different parts of the world,” Fabian said in an interview with EdScoop.

He used the refugee crisis in Europe as an example – the widespread displacement from places like Syria has left many children with gaps in their education, but they could possibly continue their studies and keep their minds active with innovative digital educational tools.

“It’s hard for them to get a continuity of education,” Fabian said. “Our team has worked with a group in South Sudan, which is working on similar issues. And maybe somebody in Lebanon, somebody in Cambodia – there may be three different companies that are all working on that same space, but not connected. So what we could do with the fund is really to allow for those to be connected to each other, and for them to grow faster, and then apply whatever comes out to the refugee crisis.”

UNICEF’s Innovation Unit has raised $9 million from governments, foundations, international finance institutions, academic entities and individuals to support the program. The group will invest only in projects that have an open source license so that other developers can customize and further improve the products for free.

Projects that are still in the early stages of development will be considered, but businesses should be able to demonstrate that what they have created could work. UNICEF will utilize its networks with governments and local businesses to promote the products.

“We’ll be able to work with the ministries of education and form connections that allow us to take innovations, and really help them get into the education system,” Fabian said. “Whether it’s a different way of teaching, or a different way of making sure girls stay in school.”

A UNICEF funding board will assess personnel and financing for the projects, and select finalists based on their inventiveness and relevance to students.

UNICEF has seen the social impact of the new technologies they are trying to fund. The NGO developed and launched a real-time communication tool in 2014 called U-Report. The application allows users to survey a customized group of teachers and students, and respondents can reply through text message.

For example, UNICEF officials had heard that teachers in Liberia were asking students for sex in exchange for good grades. So last September, the NGO asked 62,000 Liberian students through U-Report whether this was in fact happening. They received 11,000 responses, with 83 percent of people saying yes. UNICEF was able to immediately alert the ministry of education and local law enforcement to take action.

“That all happened within days,” Fabian said of the reporting process. “That type of access to information and action is vital in many parts of the world.”

Applications for funding will close Feb. 26. UNICEF will gather a series of finalists from different countries for a briefing in mid-March. After the second round of judging, the recipients will be notified in April.

Reach the reporter at yizhu.wang@edscoop.com and follow her on Twitter @yizhuevy.

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