If eBay founder Pierre Omidyar is like a mini-Santa for the emerging world, the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting is his Christmas. Last year his foundation, the Omidyar Network, announced a $30 million fund, and today he’s announced another $55 million investment.
Last year’s fund was focused on helping people’s lives by funding high-impact entrepreneurs in Sub-Saharan Africa and India, particularly entrepreneurs who provide services and products for the base of the pyramid. This year’s commitment is more directly focused on funding technology that makes lives better around the world. $30 million of the gift will be invested in government transparency programs and tools and $25 million will go towards mobile innovation.
Both are big needs in the developing world. Even much ballyhooed democracies like India can operate in chaotic and opaque ways, and technology focused on government transparency likely wouldn’t get traditional venture capital funding. When it comes to mobile, there’s plenty of investment and innovation throughout the developing world, where even people living on $2 a day can afford basic phones. But programs like mobile banking and delivering basic news and information via SMS are just the beginning of applications that can dramatically revolutionize life in countries where Internet, power, water and food access are all scarce.
The two initiatives could easily go hand-in-hand, since mobile phones are increasingly a way to hold politicians accountable in rural areas. Last time I was in India, I talked to people in remote villages who felt connected to the country’s politics for the first time thanks to phones, and others who would demand local politicians’ mobile numbers, so they can follow up when campaign promises aren’t kept.
The commitment is a three-year fund and can go towards nonprofit and for-profit programs.
While we were talking about Clinton Global Initiative pledges, I asked Omidyar’s team for an update on last year’s fund. It was also a three-year fund and so far $17 million has been invested in about a dozen programs. Examples include everything from D.light Design, which makes solar-powered lanterns, to FrontlineSMS, a powerful mobile messaging platform that supports a variety of NGOs in areas of limited Internet infrastructure, to India’s SEAF Agribusiness Fund to various research and award programs to encourage and reward high-growth entrepreneurship in Africa.