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A New $500 Million Digital Fund Hopes to Transform Lives in the Developing World

A new incubator hub will help give a ton of money to underserved communities by investing in education, economic growth and clean energy.
Image via IsDB

On February 20, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) – one of the world’s largest multilateral development banks which provides financial capital for infrastructure and development projects in muslim countries - launched Engage, a new digital platform to tackle the structural problems that hobble economic growth and homegrown innovation in developing countries, such as poor access to science education, gender gaps in economic opportunities and the lack of direct investments in local communities and skills.


Conceived as a virtual incubator, the initiative hopes to support startups and individuals building solutions to achieve food security, healthier lives, inclusive and equitable education, sustainable management of water, access to affordable and clean energy, and sustainable industrialisation.

VICE Impact met with Dr. Hayat Sindi, the IsDB’s science and innovation advisor, to discuss how this initiative will engage local communities.

VICE Impact: What motivated you to build Engage and how will it operate differently from traditional aid initiatives?

Dr. Hayat Sindi: As a scientist and inventor from the Middle East, this whole initiative stems from one observation: barriers to access to innovation are plaguing the developing world. I tried to answer the question of how the benefits of science and innovation can reach every human being when millions are denied access to technology. I wanted this platform to give young innovators the opportunity to share ideas, transfer technology and receive direct funding for projects they can oversee themselves.

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Top breakthroughs can come from local communities if they’re given equal tools.Right now people are only looking for success stories. So we look at it the other way around. Locals tell us what they need and we find the best way to respond.

What is the geographic focus of this initiative?

Anyone with scientific knowledge, an idea or a patented innovation can apply and tell us what they need. But there is one condition: their ideas skills, technology have to be applied to solving challenges in the developing country.


If a Harvard student developed a solution to curb water-borne diseases for a fraction of the cost and wants to deploy it in Western Africa, he is more than welcome to join our efforts. Everything will be rolled out digitally. So you don’t need to be close to one of our offices to join the ecosystem. Engage will be overseen by independent intellectuals, innovators, social scientists, indigenous actors, civil society, but it will be rolled out locally by local hosts.

How will target communities know about Engage?

At this stage we have embarked on a global campaign to raise awareness of the fund. If you have just an idea without technological support, we will provide the resources for you to develop it and start prove your concept. If you’re a startup company with a great product we can partner with you to commercialize it.

What kinds of local economic development projects are supported by the fund?

We are already engaging with local actors developing tools against cancer and cheaper solutions for MRIs. Others are building legal platforms to support land rights for indigenous farmers. Another example is a group that has designed affordable digital solutions for blind children.

You won’t believe how many amazing ideas have already been pitched to us and most of them carry practical applications. I met a 21 year old who’s now part of our ecosystem who produced a detection software against heart failure in a country where you can only find one cardiologist for 5 million people.


How will women at the local level will be empowered to run these initiatives themselves?

Gender equality and women empowerment are critical pillars of this initiative. I understand the challenges facing women in the developing world to gain access to engineering, science and technology. We’re introducing a separate fund as part of this initiative to equip women with the right skills to become entrepreneurs, programmers, engineers and so on.

We recognize that disparities in access to education fuel the gender gap. So we want to dedicate 60-70 of our education fund to projects tackling women’s rights and gender equality.

How do you make sure that the proceeds are largely shared among the the populations of developing countries?

We’re creating a new model for the developing world. We’ll leave no one behind and press established organizations to align their goals with the aspirations of these societies.

We have another fund for capacity building to focus on one country and one particular issue at a time. We want to set an example with this new model that can relax barriers. But capacity building is essential if a country cannot innovate because they lack the right infrastructure.

A good example is smart agriculture. As part of this project we’re conducting a study examining why we don’t see enough innovation in the developing world and why so few women are carrying these projects. We want to gather the data and find out the root causes whether it's crumbling infrastructure, education curricula, lack of resources, mindsets and traditions, awareness and so on.

We don’t leave anybody behind. Even people who can’t innovate have a right to access science and technology.

Are you hoping to tackle the brain drain problem -- where countries essentially lose their most educated and talented workers to other countries -- plaguing the developing world?

We’re introducing a scholarship program as part of this initiative to encourage talents to come back home and make a difference at the grassroots level. Most want to come back home but they don’t feel supported. It’s about providing the tools for them to achieve their dreams. Whether they’re undergraduates or PHD students, we will underwrite their efforts to transfer technology and continue their education.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.