Home EuropeEurope I 2008 Communications for life

Communications for life

by david.nunes
Jean-François CazenaveIssue:Europe I 2008
Article no.:4
Topic:Communications for life
Author:Jean-François Cazenave
Organisation:Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF)
PDF size:378KB

About author

Jean-François Cazenave is the President of Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), which he co-founded with Monique Lanne-Petit in 1998. Mr Cazenave had been a senior manager for France Telecom since 1974 and has been on secondment to TSF since 1999. Before dedicating his life to TSF, Jean-François had already founded two other ‘traditional’ humanitarian organisations. He participated in interventions in Iraq (Kurdistan) in 1991, during the war in Croatia in 1991, and more than 50 times in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1992 and 1996, then in Albania in 1997 and 1998. He worked during the war in Kosovo (1999), in Afghanistan (2001) and in Iraq (2003) and also worked on the ground after natural disasters, such as in Turkey, Thailand, El Salvador, Peru and Syria. Since its creation in 1998, TSF has implemented missions in more than 50 countries worldwide, assisting over 300 NGOs and millions of affected civilians. TSF is a partner of the Humanitarian Office of the European Commission (ECHO), First Responder of the Emergency Telecommunications Cluster and a member of the United Nations Working Group for Emergency Telecommunications (WGET).Backed by the world’s biggest telecommunications operators, TSF is today the leading humanitarian NGO specialised in emergency telecommunications thanks to worldwide coverage and three permanent bases in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Jean-François Cazenave often directly coordinates emergency missions in disaster fields, notably in Sri Lanka following the December 26 tsunami and Niger in August 2005. He also coordinated missions in Morocco in February 2004 after the Al Hoceima earthquake and recently co-ordinated missions in The Philippines in December 2004.

Article abstract

Telecoms Sans Frontièrs (TSF) provides telecommunications to help in the prevention, warning, response and management of humanitarian crises. The idea was to give every refugee from a disaster three minutes of communication to contact loved ones and look after their vital interests. Today, TSF is the official United Nations ‘first responder’, providing the telecommunications needed to coordinate relief efforts. TSF also provides pre-emptive assistance, using telecommunications networks to collect information on food stocks to help avoid food shortage crises.

Full Article

The role of telecommunications within the humanitarian world has long been neglected. The international community – particularly since the devastating Asian tsunami – has now realised the importance of having reliable communications in emergencies. Indeed, there is an urgent need for food, water, shelter, protection and medical help in emergencies, but none of these are possible without quick and reliable communications. Rapid communications saves lives. Telecommunications during emergencies One agency, the international NGO Télécoms sans Frontières (TSF), has – since its creation in 1998 – had faith in the significant role of emergency telecommunications in responding to humanitarian crises. During missions responding to the crisis in the Balkans and in Kurdistan during the first Gulf War, TSF’s founders realised that in addition to medical and food aid, there was a critical need for reliable emergency telecommunications services. Conflicts and emergencies often led to massive civilian displacement and separated families; it also devastated the existing communications infrastructure so there was no way to seek assistance or loved ones. During missions, TSF’s founders were often approached by refugees with scraps of paper asking them to help them contact loved ones and let them know they are okay, saying for example, “When you go home, please call my family at this number, tell them I’m alive at the refugee camp in Stenkovac.” To address the need for communications services, TSF bought its first satellite phone and the organisation was born. Since this time, on each of our missions – we have offered a three minute call to any affected family. We soon found that international emergency response teams also had a critical need for reliable telecommunications services in the first days after an emergency. TSF therefore expanded its operations, improved its technology and began to establish rapidly deployable emergency telecommunications centres to serve UN, government and NGO humanitarian workers, and developed a reputation for being among the first to arrive after disasters. TSF plays a crucial role strengthening the coordination of rescue and relief work and in the delivery of food and medical aid. Often after a big earthquake, hurricane or flooding, traditional telecommunication networks are either saturated or simply destroyed. Our teams can deploy in less than 24 hours from one of our three bases in France, Nicaragua and Thailand and within minutes install a satellite-based telecom centre with broadband Internet, phone and fax lines available free of charge to the whole humanitarian community. In the past six years, TSF has benefited from amazing technological advances. In 2001, when opening our first communication centre in Afghanistan, TSF used a 64kbit/s connection. Today, Inmarsat BGan offers an incredible 492kbit/s, anywhere in the world. Who would you call? Survivors of natural disasters or armed conflicts have often lost everything. They want to talk to their loved ones, inform them of the situation, and seek assistance and money. We offer survivors a chance to break out of their isolation and call to anywhere in the world for help. It may be difficult to imagine, but ten per cent of the refugees on the border with Darfur had a need to call. In the camp of Mile, during a TSF operation in July 2004, a mother thought her son had died when they fled their village separately three months earlier. Thanks to a quick call, she found her son was alive and staying with her brother in Khartoum. Within three minutes her life had changed. On all of our missions – over 60 on all continents – we have similar examples of how communications made a difference. People sometimes queue for hours to make a call. Last year TSF provided more than 20,000 MB to the UN, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and rescue teams and offered nearly 200 hours of communications to affected civilians. TSF regularly assists more than 300 NGOs. In November 2006, we signed an official partnership to become the ‘First Responder’ of the United Nations’ Emergency Telecommunications Cluster (ETC). Created by OCHA, The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the aim of the ETC is to better utilise the resources for telecommunications in humanitarian emergencies and regroup the telecoms actors who work on the ground and redistribute their roles within three phases of the response. Télécoms Sans Frontières has been given the role of rapidly opening telecoms centres for the humanitarian community during the first 30 days following a crisis and also to ensure the transition toward more long-term solutions to cover the rest of the emergency phase. The Vodafone Group Foundation (VGF), the United Nations Foundation (UNF) and TSF, thanks to its corporate partners (Inmarsat, France Telecom, Eutelsat, AT&T, Vizada and Cable & Wireless), have created a five-year plan that permits TSF to reinforce its response capacity in emergencies and to fund 192 deployment days per year. Our teams have already been deployed nine times to assist the United Nations since signing this agreement in May 2006; notably to Indonesia in June 2006 in response to a massive 6.2 earthquake; in August of the same year, to support the United Nations humanitarian mission under the ETC in Lebanon and most recently in Peru after the devastating earthquake that hit the coastal cities of the country on August 15, killing over 500 people and leaving 200,000 homeless. Preventing a food crisis with satellites In many areas of Africa, as rains diminish, and the rainy seasons become less frequent and more unpredictable, the types of crops that can be grown become restricted. Water scarcity forces cattle and sheep farmers to move to more fertile regions, leading to conflicts over grazing land and water. However, with enough advance notice, governments can make decisions that enable them to avert or minimise the food security crises such circumstances can produce. Sadly, traditional systems of passing on such information to central authorities – especially from very isolated areas – may often deliver news of worsening conditions far too late. In response to this, TSF has begun implementing satellite communications systems in parts of Africa to radically reduce the time it takes to pass on such vital, life-saving information. In the summer of 2005, Niger was hit by a food crisis. There was an unusually dry season and the country was also inundated by locusts. We were deployed in July of the same year to support the relief agencies and local authorities in Dakoro in eastern Niger – the region that was most affected. We quickly realised the national food crisis prevention system needed to be strengthened with Information Communication Technologies. Information on livestock and on agricultural income from these remote areas was not arriving in the capital, Niamey, in time. This information was collected on a piece of paper and a person was then sent by road to bring it to the capital, so it could take weeks – or sometimes as long as two months – to arrive. Protecting 700,000 people We talked to the government, to ECHO and two of our partners, Inmarsat and Vizada, to see if they would be prepared to fund a project to connect the most vulnerable areas of Niger to the capital. Once approved in the June and August of the following year, the project connected 12 of the most remote areas to the capital. Now, instead of on paper, the information is sent digitally, instantly delivering detailed information on livestock and data from agricultural markets. All the sites of the network we deployed are in what we call ‘uncommunicative areas’ – there is no GSM network, no landline, no Internet and hardly any radio communications. The only way to connect these areas is via satellite communications. For this, we used RBGan terminals donated by Inmarsat. The local government staff gathers information from local markets throughout the country in collaboration with the SIMA (Système d’Information des Marchés Agricoles – information system on agricultural markets), and the SIMB (Système d’Information des Marchés du Bétail – information system on livestock markets). Each telecom centre covers a number of villages and their markets. At each satellite terminal, a computer is connected to a small data transmitter that forwards the agricultural information to the capital. Decision-makers in the capital now have real-time data about the cereal and livestock markets, variations in stocks of subsistence crops, modifications in the population’s diet, the development of sanitary and nutritional situations, variations in natural resources, and the dynamics of commercial trade. The information sent to decision-makers in Niamey also includes information on the local health situation collected by government workers going from health centre to health centre. Minimum costs With satellite communications, and particularly mobile satellite solutions, you pay by volume. To be sustainable, and to send the information on a regular basis, the information packets must be as ‘light’ as possible. So, with support from the Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour in south-western France, we developed software to compress the data sent from around 300kb to 3kb. The whole system only registers approximately US$100 per month in communications costs. The cost is small, especially in comparison with the number of lives that can be saved. While ECHO paid for the equipment, the training and the initial communications costs, the Niger government will eventually pay the communications costs itself. The stations are manned by local staff, who we have trained, but apart from communications and staff at the stations, including the data collectors, there are no other costs. The simplicity of the system allows it to be easily duplicated elsewhere in Africa. TSF could expand it to cover neighbouring countries as well. By changing the details on the form, the system can be adapted to gather information relating to avian flu, AIDS, malaria and many other early warning or prevention system needs. TSF needs more support from the corporate sector On TSF’s partnership with the Vodafone Group Foundation and the United Nations Foundation, Jan Egeland, the former Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said, “This programme will provide reliable telecom services so responders can more effectively do their jobs and save lives in the first days of an emergency.” He continued, “This is the kind of successful public-private partnership we need as we confront increasingly challenging emergencies around the world.” Connect the World offers a chance for more companies to join us. It seemed natural in the past 30 years when pharmaceutical and food companies helped NGOs in their humanitarian activities. In the same spirit, we need more telecoms and technology companies to join us and our corporate partners to help us save lives.

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