Clash of the humanitarian titans

In August of this year, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg unveiled his plan to improve humanity by expanding internet access into the developing world, touting it as “one of the most important things we will do in our lifetimes.”  He published his thoughts and visions in an online document where he asks the question:  “Is connectivity a human right?”

Zuckerberg goes on to say, “I’m focused on this because I believe it is one of the greatest challenges of our generation. The unfair economic reality is that those already on Facebook have way more money than the rest of the world combined, so it may not actually be profitable for us to serve the next few billion people for a very long time, if ever. But we believe everyone deserves to be connected.  The internet not only connects us to our friends, families and communities, but it is also the foundation of the global knowledge economy.”

However, Microsoft mogul Bill Gates has reacted publicly with some harsh criticisms about Mark Zuckerberg’s plan, calling the Facebook entrepreneur’s mission “a joke.”

“As a priority? It’s a joke,” Gates told CNBC in an interview. “I certainly love the IT thing. But when we want to improve lives, you’ve got to deal with more basic things like child survival, child nutrition.  Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”

Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and someone who has been labeled the richest man in the world, has devoted himself to humanitarian causes since stepping down from a full-time role at Microsoft in 2006, personally investing millions of dollars from his own personal fortune into efforts to eradicate illnesses such as polio, HIV, and malaria on a global scale.  His website thoroughly outlines many of the other social issues Bill Gates and his wife Melinda are getting in front of, including extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries and the failures of America’s education system.

At first glance, it is easy to mock Zuckerberg’s “get the world online” plan when contrasted against the sobering perspective offered to us by Bill Gates, who also blasted Google’s dream to bring the internet to the world’s unconnected population by floating hundreds of weather balloons equipped with solar-powered radios in an attempt create an aerial wireless network with up to 3G-like speeds. “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you,” said Gates.  “When a kid gets diarrhea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.”

But setting aside for a moment the disapproving commentary by Bill Gates, is it quite possible that Mark Zuckerberg is onto something here, too?  He believes that “bringing everyone online will not only improve billions of lives, but we’ll also improve our own as we benefit from the ideas and productivity they contribute to the world.  Giving everyone the opportunity to connect is the foundation for enabling the knowledge economy. It is not the only thing we need to do, but it’s a fundamental and necessary step.”

No stranger to philanthropy himself, Zuckerberg and his wife were the second-biggest charitable donors in the United States last year,  giving roughly half a billion dollars to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a charitable organization whose causes in 2012 ranged from programs to teach immigrants English, to groups providing food and shelter to the needy, to funds for victims of the California wildfires.  In addition, he donated $100 million to help schools in the U.S.

Can the crises humanity is facing right now – hunger, poverty, homelessness, illness, lack of education – be alleviated by both of the innovative ideas of these two powerful men who are more than willing to put their money where it matters?

Are we willing to risk an extraordinary opportunity for significant positive change to occur while we sit back and debate with each other who is right and who is wrong?  Isn’t the biggest obstacle we currently face — the one thing that stands in the way of real, positive, and beneficial change taking place — our inability to embrace each other’s perspectives as “another way,” not a “better way”?

Can the internet be counted as a fundamental and basic necessity for everyone in our world?  Or is it a tool, a resource, a luxury that should be reserved for those who can afford it?  If the latter is true, are we simply playing into the continuing the cycle of “those who have” and “those who do not”?

Do people who have no running or clean water, families with barely enough food to sustain their bodies, and those who struggle with life-threatening illnesses on a daily basis really even care about having internet access?  Is the information superhighway, as Gates contends, just not, “in the hierarchy of human needs, in the first five rungs” and instead we should be placing our intentions and financial wherewithal elsewhere?

According to a senior United Nations official, “Helping developing countries build their citizens’ access to the Internet is akin to giving them a tool that boosts their chances of achieving sustainable economic growth.”

Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t have to be one or the other, this or that, yours or mine?  Can you imagine a way these two humanitarian giants can work hand-in-hand, supported by a new framework of understanding, clarity, and wisdom which would give rise to the harmonious implementation of both of their powerful visions and creative ideas?

Personally, the prospect of that level of collaboration and heartfelt cooperation is something I would definitely hit the “like” button for.

(Lisa McCormack is the Managing Editor & Administrator of The Global Conversation. She is also a member of the Spiritual Helper team at, a website offering emotional and spiritual support. To connect with Lisa, please e-mail her at

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