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News Expands Aid For Disease, Disaster Prevention

Google's philanthropic arm has announced $25 million in new grants and investment to help "make the world a better place." The computer search engine is focusing on projects that include disease and disaster prevention, helping small and medium-sized enterprises, improving the flow of information to hold governments accountable, and developing renewable energy sources. VOA Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

The co-founders of Google (Sergey Brin and Larry Page) launched their unconventional business ten years ago under the motto "Don't Be Evil." In 2006, Google hired Larry Brilliant as executive director of its in-house philanthropy, known as Google DotOrg. Brilliant is an American physician who moved to India in the 1970's and played a major role in eradicating smallpox in the country. One of the five new grants goes to a project to use information technology to predict and prevent ecological disasters and the outbreak of disease. Brilliant says diseases that jump from animals to humans are a real threat.

"We've pushed all the limits, we've cut down the rain forests, we've moved into the territory of animals, and these diseases which have always been there in the animal population are now jumping to human beings," he said.

Brilliant says there are more than 35 major diseases which have jumped species, including SARS and bird flu, and that an early warning system would make a huge difference.

"There are now 50 million people living with HIV-AIDS," he added. "Had we been fortunate and been in that African jungle when that virus jumped from a chimpanzee to a human being, and had we been able to stop the disease, nip it in the bud, so to speak, then, look at the tragedy, human tragedy that could have been averted."

The grant seeks to strengthen disease surveillance systems in the Mekong Basin, stretching from Vietnam and Burma to southwestern China.

Aid from is different from other corporate giving because it allows investment in for-profit companies. Google also encourages its employees to participate directly in philanthropic projects on company time, and to lobby public officials for changes in policy. The foundation has pledged $10 million to eSolar, a California-based company that has developed a solar generator to replace traditional power plants. A number of the new grants are going to India, to improve urban and education planning there.

Google's new grants have generated both enthusiasm and criticism. Siva Vaidhyanathan is an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. He welcomes Google's commitment but questions its approach.

"Google's approach to every problem is technocratic," he said. "It is that they can impose a machine, or invent a machine, or invent a piece of software that can solve a major, complicated challenge, and that given enough bombast, people will converge on this machine as the answer to a problem. And I think that is a mistake."

Larry Brilliant admits that Google's philanthropic efforts are an "experiment", and says we will all just have to watch and see if they work.