SHE’S HELPING REFUGEES TO BECOME TECH ENTREPRENEURS
JOSÉPHINE GOUBE IS THE COO AT LONDON-BASED TECHFUGEES, A STARTUP THAT’S TEACHING REFUGEES EVERYTHING FROM 3D PRINTING TO APP DEVELOPMENT.
The West seems full of at-white-slurping startup workers talking tech with few of them promoting the rights of refugees. But Joséphine Goube, a 28-year-old Frenchwoman living in London, has made her name by doing both. Goube is chief operating officer at Techfugees, which – as its name hints – encourages smart tech types to help solve, or at least ease, the myriad problems faced by refugees.
It is one of several posts held by Goube that combine her two key roles, if you were to clumsily label her, as migration campaigner and tech evangelist. Many people view the refugee crisis as an intractable problem. But Goube sees a concrete role for technology in helping empower refugees – many of whom have access to smartphones – and the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) struggling to assist them.
“Basically we’re in the 21st century and charities and NGOs have been operating on a 20th century model,” says Goube. “People at sea have been able to be rescued because they were on WhatsApp, so they could [send] their location. So it’s a totally different game, as a NGO or charity that you’re navigating. We provide tech support to NGOs and refugees.” Goube speaks breathlessly over the phone from Paris. Her schedule is busy – her emails are certainly short and snappy, with one clocking in at two words – and she travels a lot. Her work has seen her visit refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and France. She has seen the impact of the crisis up close – and recognised the need for more help on the ground. “They’re desperate. The sector is not getting any funding any more, because the funders don’t think they’ve been successful,” she says.
Techfugees is based in London but has global chapters across the world, from San Francisco to Dubai and Sydney. Its focus is more around advocacy – organising conferences, workshops and ‘hackathons’ – rather than creating technology itself. It has built an online platform called Basefugees, a kind of Crunchbase – the online entrepreneur and investor database – for refugee technology. It lists challenges faced by NGOs and hopes to connect them with tech-minded volunteers that may be able to provide a solution.
So for example, an NGO may use the service if it is looking for an engineer to install a low-cost Internet service in a camp, or a so ware coder to create an app to aid education. Techfugees has five main focus areas, namely infrastructure – providing access to the Internet and technology – education, identity, health and inclusion.
Such work is undeniably valuable, not least because of the reported signs of “donor fatigue” in the ongoing refugee crisis. According to press reports before the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, France was demolished, there was a shortage of food, tents and blankets, as public donations dwindled.
So why focus on promoting technology, when such basics are so badly needed? Goube says she gets asked this question o en – and has a good response for it. “One of the projects we follow in Jordan provides 3D-printed limbs to refugees. When doing this, they teach the refugee how to become a 3D-printing designer. So when that happens you create a job for that person, you create a skill. And that’s very different from the traditional approach [of] ‘I’m going to give you food and blankets’,” she says. “This is the core of what we do. Whatever we