TSF: Providing connectivity in a crisis situation
When disaster strikes – from earthquakes to hurricanes, and cities left in ruin by warfare – international aid plays a vital part in keeping some of the poorest communities in the world from entire collapse.
Though connectivity is still not viewed as a utility, it is a vital tool in modern socities, and so important when disasters strike. But in war, communication lines may be cut be enemy forces. And a telecoms mast stands little chance in the face of flash floods, leaving victims of humanitarian crises desperate for even the most basic telecoms services.
Telecoms Sans Frontieres – a global NGO which offers emergency response telecoms provisions in humanitarian crises – recently celebrated 25 years of operations in which it has helped some of the most desperate victims of some of the world’s worst disasters.
We spoke to Inès Guittonneau, communication officer at TSF, about some of the NGO’s recent projects.
Please tell our readers who TSF are and what you do?
Telecoms Sans Frontieres (TSF) was founded in 1998 as the world’s first telecoms NGO focused on emergency-response technology for humanitarian crises. TSF exists to protect people in crisis and humanitarian emergencies and enable them to regain a perspective on their lives through innovative technological solutions, connectivity, communications, and access to information.
Connectivity is increasingly central for communities and businesses. How has this changed your approach over the last 25 years?
The premise for the organisation started when our founders were volunteering during a humanitarian crisis and people kept bringing their loved ones’ numbers for our founders to call when they went back to France.
People need to reach their loved ones in any way possible to let them know that they are alive after humanitarian crises.
Since 1999, 25 years later – these needs haven’t changed. However, as society adopts new technology, we can adapt the support we offer. For example, the Wi-Fi connection we provide permits video calling their loved ones and sending them instant messages. What has changed with the increasing connectivity, however, is the opportunities for people in crisis.
In Ukraine, parents use connectivity to work remotely during the war and keep their families afloat. Children and teenagers can follow their educational programmes online, while millions of children and refugees lose access to education when forced to move. In refugee camps, where people have little to do but wait, connectivity provides contact with the outside world, information, and sometimes a precious distraction to ease anxiety and stress.
What projects are you most proud of being involved in at TSF and why?
Each and every project is important and fulfilling for TSF, staff, sponsors, and most importantly the people we help – from the immediate response after a natural disaster to the long-term digital inclusion projects like those we have in Madagascar. Personally, I’m one of the main focal points at headquarters for the information diffusion project in Latin America, which means I closely follow the project, correspond with the team, and see the project’s impact on the people who benefit from it.
In 2022, 17,000 people accessed essential information every month in the numerous shelters associated with TSF’s work in Latin America. One of our sources of pride comes from the testimonials we receive, from mothers forced to flee with their children to shelter managers who see the long-term impact of providing migrants and asylum seekers with this information. These testimonies give sense to our work, confirm the necessity of our actions, and help us create materials to encourage us to continue!
Has the change in expectations around connectivity (i.e., move to 4G/5G etc.) made it harder to deliver during a crisis?
It’s true that the evolution of communication technologies has given us access to better connectivity, whether terrestrial or satellite. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made here between those involved in humanitarian response, versus those who will require more advanced measurement, analysis, and reporting tools to better target needs, and ultimately provide the most suitable response depending on the situation.
However, every crisis has its constraints, and sometimes it’s only possible to access emergency connectivity temporarily which most field responders are aware of and prepared for.
For those affected by humanitarian crises, I would say the most important thing is to re-establish links with loved ones and family. The development of 4G and 5G has accelerated the speed at which messages are sent and received around the world through instant messaging with photo and video transfer capabilities.
At TSF, we provide a platform for vulnerable people to hear a familiar comforting voice, and share news to provide support and relief from their circumstances, even if only momentarily. Facilitating the means to reconnect with loved ones, in a very difficult situation, helps to instill courage and envisage a future beyond the crisis.
What are the biggest challenges TSF faces today?
TSF is a bridge between humanitarian action and new technologies. Humanitarian situations are evolving and, in a way, becoming more complex, with access to disaster-stricken populations sometimes becoming more difficult. By the end of 2022, there were 108.4 million forcibly displaced people across the world.
Our actions must therefore adapt to these situations while keeping pace with new technologies. Our technical team regularly monitors and evaluates new solutions to assess their relevance to the situations we encounter in crisis zones.
Many NGOs are confronted with these challenges, in their own respective fields of expertise, and we believe it is essential to build alliances to provide a more comprehensive response to these increasingly complex or delicate humanitarian situations.
You also try to offer educational support. Can you tell us any more about these efforts?
As an NGO with a technology specialty, our educational support programme is called Digital Inclusion. These activities include providing access to digital tools and connectivity, and training, whilst promoting ethical, conscious, and responsible practices.
It’s a very broad topic, ranging from the digital educational resources that students can find in Madagascar to the way the internet is provided along the migratory route in Latin America. We also want to cover the environmental impact of digital activities.
Most of the people we help live in areas prone to natural disasters or have to manage large quantities of electronic waste. Digital inclusion aims to give everyone a global picture of the digital world so that people can use digital products and services appropriately according to their own environment and the challenges they face.
How important is it for local businesses and people to have robust, emergency capacity in place?
Indeed, emergency preparedness is part of the crisis cycle, and it is now well known that a locally distributed response will be able to respond effectively to a crisis.
We’re not specialists in emergency preparedness in general, but when it comes to emergency telecommunications support, the most important thing is that communication tools are integrated into the national or regional response mechanism. This is the aim of our project “Building regional emergency telecoms capacity” in partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA): integrating telecommunications functions into regional response agencies to support and reinforce existing isolated response systems and processes.
This transformation requires equipment, training facilitators, and volunteers to construct a network of responders. The network must include national and regional representatives who can interact seamlessly with international stakeholders such as TSF, in the case of a large-scale crisis.
We believe that the more these different levels have the necessary and appropriate communication tools to carry out their actions, the more effective and timely emergency responses can become. Consequently, reducing the impact of crises on communities and simultaneously empowering residents through technological resources to help restore their lives and livelihoods.
How can connectivity contribute to better lives for displaced people?
With connectivity, displaced people can contact their loved ones to share their whereabouts and circumstances, which is a tremendous relief for all parties. In refugee camps, or on the move, everyday life can be stressful. Access to the outside world, through information and communication with loved ones, is integral to individuals’ well-being. Many also heavily rely on it to plan and manage their journeys.
Displaced people can also find health care providers, social services, education, and other public services to continue with their lives and prepare for their future. People forced to move might not always have phones or data – but this can lead to mobile phone sharing, which can bring people together.
What does the future hold for TSF?
It’s always hard to foresee what might happen in the future! But we think that partnership is key – after all, it’s the 17th Sustainable Developmental Goal adopted by the United Nations. From our operational partners who work with us during missions, to financial partners who share our values and support us.
Our work is our testimony to partnership at every level and is part of TSF’s future. Learn more about our work, and how you can get involved and become a partner here.
Click here to read our Q&A with BT’s, ETC director of healthtech Neal Herman.
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