Coders part of a ‘Without Borders’ beyond the MSF trend

Teachers Without Borders
Copyright: Teachers Without Borders

Speed read

  • Médicins Sans Frontières has been delivering free medical assistance since 1971
  • More than 100 professional groups now provide services irrespective of borders
  • One of the newest is Coders Without Borders, set up last year in Zimbabwe

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Balthazar Sieders and Mike Martel spend their days cycling along the coast of Africa, stopping here and there to offer free advice on computer coding to people who need it. The duo have called themselves Coders Without Borders, and they’re part of a trend. More than four decades after Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was formed, it’s no longer just doctors that don’t heed borders in their efforts to help the disadvantaged — scientists and academics from many spheres have joined them.

Since MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, was set up in 1971, over 100 professional groups — from architects to vets — around the world have adopted both the Without Borders name and approach. Regardless of their specialism, each organisation comprises a group of professional individuals who give their time and expertise to help those in need. Just like the original movement, these new organisations work to help people irrespective of race, religion, gender or political affiliation, and they consider the needs of those they assist to outweigh respect for national borders.

At the core of the Without Borders ethos is “an understanding that it’s not about your family or your client or your tribe or your nation”, says Marc DuBois, executive director of MSF in the United Kingdom. “There is something much more fundamental — that we’re all a member of the human family and I think that idea is one that’s been growing in parallel to the growth of human rights.”

DuBois may be right that the idea is spreading. Certainly the advent of the internet has helped by providing the option of setting up Without Borders-style organisations online, reducing the need for face-to-face contact and infrastructure such as offices and vehicles.

Language barriers

One example is Traducteurs Sans Frontières, which was founded in 1993 in response to MSF requests to help its doctors with translations in the field. It provided simple translation services from its base in Paris, France. In 2010, it was reinvented as the US-based Translators Without Borders, which has adopted an online approach.

“By enabling individuals and organisations working on similar issues to connect with each other and exchange resources and expertise, progress is accelerated.”

Chenelle Bonavito, Scientists Without Borders

Last October, the organisation won a grant worth £132,000 (around US$219,000) from the UK-based Humanitarian Innovation Fund for its Words of Relief project to improve communication between aid workers and affected communities during crisis response.

“After the [2010] Haiti earthquake, people in the translation industry really woke up and it was clear that a need was not being met among non-profit and humanitarian organisations responding to crises,” says Rebecca Petras, programme director of Translators Without Borders. “Following a crisis, one of the most immediate priorities for both relief workers and victims is disseminating and receiving information, yet language barriers frequently complicate response efforts.”

Translators Without Borders uses an online platform to connect more than 200 registered NGOs — including MSF, Action Against Hunger and Oxfam America — with professional translators so that information can be transferred to those who need it, both during crises and routine development work.

Since 2011, the organisation has translated more than 15 million words — an amount that would take roughly 25 weeks of constant typing to produce — and it aims to translate at least ten million words a year.

Crowdsourcing scientific answers

Although many Without Borders organisations are adopting an online approach to their work, there are still notable differences in their methods. Scientists Without Borders, a project that was launched in 2008 by the New York Academy of Sciences, United States, uses crowdsourcing to try to find solutions to the most-pressing global development challenges.

“By enabling individuals and organisations working on similar issues to connect with each other and exchange resources and expertise, progress is accelerated,” says Chenelle Bonavito, programme associate at Scientists Without Borders.

Users can post questions on the organisation’s online platform, enabling them to take advantage of insights and ideas sent in response by the diverse network of other users. For example, one person wanted to know more about the problems of refrigerating vaccines in transit. Many users have responded to the question, including those who research the subject, and a discussion has developed, allowing users to learn from each other’s expertise. There are currently 136 active questions and 447 answers on the platform and around 3,840 registered users.

The platform also hosts competitions. Scientists Without Borders recently ran a US$10,000 challenge with healthcare firm Johnson & Johnson that sought ideas to increase the awareness and utilisation of mental health services for depression and anxiety disorders in the developing world.

After reviewing 36 entries, the prize went to two students in the United States: Alejandra Leyton, a Bolivian health economist studying at Tulane University in Louisiana, and Veena Katikineni, a medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Their proposal, MHealth for Mental Health, uses an anonymous text message service to supply relevant information to not only the patient, but also people such as their family and friends, who are best positioned to support the patient. The joint winners have worked together on many Scientists Without Borders challenges, despite being in different US states.

Reinterpreting borders

While online Without Borders organisations allow professionals to provide free services from their own homes, some groups have found that it's still important to meet people in person, despite the fact that the services they provide are often offered virtually in the rest of the world.

Since they met last year in Zimbabwe, Sieders and Martel have been working under the Without Borders philosophy, providing coding services for projects in need that they encounter on their respective journeys through Africa.

“I can work in hotel lobbies and restaurants, anywhere that has Wi-Fi,” says Sieders. “In that sense, we’re very flexible and don’t necessarily have to be on the ground, but what I’ve found in Africa is that people do need that face-to-face contact. Trust is a big thing and nobody really wants to accept your services unless they’ve met you personally and trust you. So it is really about reinterpreting borders as it really means putting somebody close to you rather than far away.”

The work that Sieders and Martel are undertaking does not generally need the same Western-backed funding schemes that other Without Borders organisations may require. Anyone with a laptop can contribute their coding expertise from anywhere on the planet. “Computer programming languages are universal, so there are fewer barriers to cross in order to get started,” says Sieders.

Sieders and Martel are both 29-year-old Dutchmen. After completing their respective degrees in architecture and design, and philosophy and interactive media, they realised that the coding and graphics skills that they had developed in their spare time were a more practical way to sustain themselves in the real world. Their business model is not to work exclusively for free but to encourage coders to work on projects that will have a positive impact. Some of these can be on a volunteer basis or others are for larger NGOs or initiatives that have a budget. 

The duo created Coders Without Borders’ last year. “The primary mission was to encourage more programmers and web designers to focus on making the world a better place,” says Sieders.

Projects that the pair have worked on include creating a website that encourages students to intern in Namibia, building a free website-making tool for NGOs and community-based organisations, an online social business platform in India and simple mobile applications for rural farmers.

Unlike other Without Borders organisations, Sieders and Martel don’t need an organisational name to function. “We are continuing to contribute to social and environmental projects we come across along the way,” says Sieders, who is currently making his way to the Ivory Coast. Martel is heading towards Tanzania. 

The first Without Borders movements worked on the premise that crossing borders was sometimes necessary to provide humanitarian assistance to those most in need. While this approach is still crucial for many operations, including those of MSF, the invention and growth of the internet has made it ever easier for professionals to disseminate knowledge and help to those in need, without the need to cross borders.

Each Without Borders initiative has its own approach to providing free services, depending on its expertise. And while not many organisations may be able to say that they’re biking through Africa like Sieders and Martel, all share the same philosophy in using their professional expertise for global development.