Donor Series: Vilas Dhar

CyberPeace Institute

While technology shapes every aspect of our lives from when we wake up, to how we work, it is crucial that we secure the entire digital infrastructure to ensure everyone, especially vulnerable communities have equal access to technology’s benefits. In the pursuit of a safe cyber landscape, we are thrilled to present the second instalment of our Donors’ series.

We had the privilege of interviewing Vilas Dhar, President and Trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. Join us as we explore the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation and gain insight on creating a thriving, equitable, and sustainable future for all.


Vilas Dhar, President and Trustee of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation

The Patrick J. McGovern Foundation is a 21st-century philanthropy advancing AI and data solutions to create a thriving, equitable, and sustainable future for all. Our foundation was built on the conviction that the age of AI marks a transformative moment in human history – one that demands broad-based civil participation and the intentional prioritization of human dignity and equity even as technology enables new opportunities for growth.

We work to shift power over the design and implementation of AI and data tools from the privileged few to individuals and communities, including historically marginalized and underserved communities. To achieve our vision of a human-centered digital future, we have re-envisioned our philanthropy as not merely a grantmaking institution but as a thought leader, direct partner, capacity builder, and disruptor – advocating for human dignity in a tech-enabled world.

Working together

Why did your organization get involved in supporting the Institute?

We are deeply optimistic about the potential of technology and its capacity to solve human challenges, from optimizing the efficiency of humanitarian action in conflict settings, to advancing democratic discourse and fueling community-led movements for societal progress. But we are also realists – understanding that technology can and is being used in adversarial ways that harm the rights, interests, and welfare of individuals. 

In this vein, we are proud to partner with the CyberPeace Institute as a civil society leader in advancing human-centric solutions to protect communities when their rights and dignity are violated in the digital space. In particular, the Institute’s ongoing work tracking cyber attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine has filled critical gaps in protecting vulnerable communities in war-torn areas, and paved pathways to accountability for affected individuals. 

Why is the work of the CyberPeace Institute important for your organization?

When it comes to digital transformation, we believe that the greatest threat is not the technology itself, but rather a human one – that these technologies – either through the inaction of good actors or the activities of bad actors – can be used to further disadvantage or even exploit vulnerable communities. It’s a challenge we are already witnessing – in conflict zones, during and after humanitarian crises, and in under-resourced regions and communities across the globe. Our foundation is committed to overcoming this challenge and ensuring that civil society remains in the driver’s seat – well-equipped to both protect the communities they serve and to foster informed and empowered digital citizens.

The work of the CyberPeace Institute continues to advance our shared interests in a just digital future. Through their efforts, they have empowered groups at the frontlines of vulnerability to regain agency around their data and digital presence, predict and counter cyber threats, and hold bad actors accountable when their digital dignity and rights are violated. We are confident that the work at the CyberPeace Institute will contribute invaluable best practices and broadly applicable insights for other stakeholders in this space, many of whom are now included in our vast network of partners and colleagues across sectors – from climate change to humanitarian response, to digital health.

What impact have you seen stemming from your support to the Institute?

We have seen a marked improvement in civil society awareness and democratic discourse around relevant issues in the cybersecurity space. This relates to one of our primary motives as an organization – ensuring that civil society and communities feel empowered to show up as active and informed agents of change in shaping our shared digital future.

Second, we are seeing more targeted support for organizations that serve the most vulnerable populations. The Institute has brought a robust, frontline awareness to the needs and dangers faced by communities in precarious settings, advanced global norms around digital rights and dignity, and advocated for accountability where those norms are violated. 

Finally, we are seeing more productive and intentional collaboration between technology companies and civil society organizations – merging the efficiency and technological prowess of the private sector with the fit-for-purpose and community-led approach of the civil sector. This model of collaboration continues to provide critical learnings for others in this space.

What advice would you give to other potential donors interested in supporting the CyberPeace Institute?

My advice is for not just potential donors of the CyberPeace Institute but also the many donors working to support and advance the work of countless civil society actors and changemakers working at the frontlines of vulnerability. Rather than approach your role from the perspective of a traditional, hands-off funder, I encourage the philanthropic sector to come forward as an active partner and participant in this work. I encourage our sector as a whole to show up with curiosity, humility, and a learning mindset – to center partners and grantees as the leading architects in innovative solutions, to continuously seek out the value of diverse perspectives and expertise, and to boldly acknowledge how our collective success in solving global challenges hinges on our commitment to collaborative, cross-sector efforts. 

Why is supporting non-governmental organizations – such as the CyberPeace Institute – in cybersecurity so important today?

Cybersecurity is largely dominated by a small set of actors – policymakers and technologists – who are sometimes distanced from the very settings and communities that their decisions and actions will affect. At PJMF, we believe that the solution to every human challenge – from cybersecurity, to climate change, to global health – requires a broad set of diverse stakeholders, with communities and civil society at the center. The voice of NGOs and other civil society actors like the CyberPeace Institute play a critical role in elevating the interests of vulnerable groups, as well as ensuring that our shared solutions to issues like cybersecurity prioritize the dignity and equity of individuals, and that they continue to serve as a bridge to long-term, sustainable solutions for community empowerment. 

© Copyright 2023: The concepts and information contained in this document are the property of the CyberPeace Institute, an independent non-governmental organization headquartered in Geneva, unless indicated otherwise from time to time throughout the document. This document may be reproduced, in whole or in part, provided that the CyberPeace Institute is referenced as author and copyright holder.

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