Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the Alphabet-owned internet company, set up a $1.3 million fund that aims to equip women, people with disabilities and refugees in the Mena region with the digital skills needed to run businesses and boost their career opportunities.
The funds will be used to reach out to people from diverse backgrounds in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and the UAE.
The data-driven investment programme will provide the skills needed amid the global digital pivot, Google.org president Jacquelline Fuller said.
"Digital skills are something that we have identified several years ago as being the most critical area globally where we thought Google could offer help and make the biggest impact on people's well-being," Ms Fuller, who is also a Google vice president, told The National in an exclusive interview on Monday.
"Looking at data, the growth of jobs – middle-income jobs in particular – all require digital skills ... we are big believers in artificial intelligence and machine learning to advance technology and advance the business sector."
Google.org, which invests more than $200m annually in non-profits, has contributed $15.5m to Mena non-governmental organisations over the past five years.
All grants are primarily aimed at improving job opportunities for both the unemployed and underemployed.
Ms Fuller said that women, in particular, are being disproportionately hit hard by the transition to a digital economy, which was only made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.
About six million jobs are at risk in the Arab world due to the pandemic alone, according to the Arab Monetary Fund, with 64 per cent and 39 per cent of women in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, respectively, at high risk of displacement if they are unable to acquire digital skills, according to McKinsey.
Meanwhile, refugees can contribute to the societies that welcome them as workers, innovators, entrepreneurs, taxpayers, consumers and investors, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
In turn, these efforts can help to create jobs, raise productivity and the wages of local workers, stimulate international trade and investment, lift capital returns and improve innovation.
Employing people with disabilities in the private sector can be a part of wider efforts to improve workforce diversity, resulting in concrete economic benefits for these companies.
These benefits include increased innovation and staff commitment, more effective problem solving and a more positive reputation among clients, business partners and society, according to the International Labour Organisation and OECD.
California-based Google's support for Mena technology sectors is also well documented. Earlier this year, the company launched its Grow My Store tool in both Arabic and English to help local retailers build their business through the use of data analytics.
Ms Fuller said that Google.org wants to assist in the achievement of these goals and address the prevailing challenges. The organisation looks at hard data to determine viability, with reinvestments often made if it finds solutions that are scalable.
These would also lead to the creation of small businesses, the "absolute cornerstones of economies", Ms Fuller said.
"Before we fund entities, we sit down together, look at what they are doing and their available data evidence. Together, we set metrics for how they will use the grants to reach a specific set of beneficiaries," she said.
Google.org has invested $15m over the past several years in the Mena region. Its biggest funding was a $25m open call this year for organisations serving women and young girls.
Ms Fuller also dismissed the notion that new-age technology is a threat to human jobs. New industries are being created that are opening up new job opportunities as a result of emerging technology, she said.
"It is a conversation that we are having globally, to think and understand [more about] new technology – machine learning and artificial intelligence – and how these forces are going to play out in the global economic sphere," she said.
"But we know these technologies are going to help spur innovation. We will see the biggest impact on how people's skills specifically needed for job roles are going to change over time and have a need to have advanced digital skills."
New jobs will also be created because of new technology. Citing the example of self-driving cars – a segment that did not exist some years back – Ms Fuller said that new roles such as those in the technical and manufacturing aspects will be required.
Google.org's newest grantees will be using the funds for various purposes. Helm will run workshops that will focus on digital literacy and business communication in Egypt, Jordan and the UAE over the next 18 months, with the intention of reaching more than 1,000 persons with disabilities.
Idare will train 200 young women in Jordan, including those without previous work experience, on a range of competencies such as product marketing and design thinking.
Spark will host digital skills training sessions for 250 young refugees and also offer coaching and mentoring sessions, as well as launch a regional start-up competition.
"We need to make sure we are addressing the full spectrum, from the basic end, making sure people have those skills to participate in the digital economy," Ms Fuller said.
Last month, Google.org's Impact Challenge for Women and Girls committed $25m to fund organisations creating pathways to prosperity for women and girls, with initiatives eligible to receive up to $2m.
In April, Impact Challenge on Climate was set up to help 11 groups to build a greener and more sustainable Europe.
It also committed $100m and 50,000 hours of pro bono support – professional services rendered voluntarily – to the global Covid-19 response, focusing on health and science, economic relief and recovery, and distance learning.
Since 2015, it has granted $32m to fund to organisations using data science to advance racial justice.