By Frank Schott, Managing Director of Global Programs
Track back to March 1999. I was flying on a military transport into Albania to do an assessment of the refugee crisis in the Balkans. Our assessment mission had a very narrow focus. Could the use of information and communications technologies help humanitarian agencies register refugees as they flowed out of Kosovo, and could these same systems help refugees reunite with their families? What I saw in those days, weeks, and months traveling to the region temporarily crushed the way I thought about our world. How could anyone create so much misery for another human being? Over one million innocent women, men and children pushed out of their homes! So much stress, so much pain on the faces of Kosovars fleeing the country. But I also got a glimpse of what technology could do: provide dignity to the refugees by restoring their identity through the use of an electronic ID card solution. And it could help support humanitarian agencies make decisions about how to provide aid to large populations of refugees. Click here to learn more about the Kosovo project.
Today, almost 16 years later, we at NetHope are working side by side with over 20 international development agencies on the Syrian refugee crisis, the largest humanitarian challenge since World War II. The refugee registration system that we put in place back in 1999 during the Kosovo crisis has evolved over these past 16 years; it feels good to know that it’s still being used, now with new biometric identification in some places. But there are still opportunities to do more with technology.
Many refugees have smartphones. They are able to get 2G and 3G coverage in many places where refugees are migrating and settling. Why is this important? First, it means that many refugees have a voice and the tools they need to be heard. They can communicate with family and friends to let them know that they are safe and where they are going. Second, refugees can access a myriad of quality online information sources and plan their journeys, enabling them to be much more self-reliant and informed.
When I reflect on these two experiences and think about my many trips to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, I can see reason for optimism over a backdrop of pain and suffering. Click here to learn more about the Dadaab program.
The harsh reality is that political and civil conflict seems to happen with increasing frequency and over longer periods of time. Most refugees don’t end up repatriating to their country of origin as they did in Kosovo. Meanwhile, funding for these protracted emergencies has not kept pace with the basic needs of refugees that have been displaced. This isn’t an easy reality.
Still, I am optimistic because of what have seen in our work at NetHope and with other aid agencies and corporate partners.
- Information and communications technologies are making a real difference. In 1999, refugees did not have cell phones. They communicated with each other by posting handwritten letters on large community boards outside of refugee camps in hopes that someone they knew would find the letter and pass the word along to someone else they knew. Today, access to a smart phone means that anyone can connect with almost anyone. Today we also see humanitarian agencies using digital payments to get cash to refugees so that they can buy the goods and services they need. Meanwhile, others are exploring new ways to help refugee children get an education in their native language through distance learning tools. At NetHope we have seen a real increase in how international development agencies use data to inform decision-making and resource allocation. Technology is changing everything.
- While government funding is not keeping pace with the financial challenges, we see more and more private sector companies supporting our work, and it’s an amazing thing. Whereas in 1999, the refugee registration project was mostly an investment by Microsoft Corporation, today we see many other tech companies like Cisco, Facebook, Google and Amazon jumping in with cash, technical expertise, valuable product donations and technical expertise from their employees.
- There is a much greater understanding that refugees are not the ones creating the conflict; they are fleeing the conflict. This is an important distinction.
In the end, this work has been both heartbreaking and incredibly rewarding. As we move into the New Year, we at NetHope want to salute all of NetHope’s member nonprofit organizations, as well as UNHCR, other UN agencies and the governments that are hosting the refugees. And we want to thank our corporate partners as well as USAID for their support.
Together, we’re taking on this challenge to improve the lives of refugees fleeing Syria and refugees all over the world.
Frank Schott is NetHope’s Managing Director of Global Programs based in Seattle, Washington. Frank has been working in the field of international development since 1999. NetHope is a registered United States 501(c)3 and was founded by Cisco and Save the Children in 2001.
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