U.N. Official Praises Microsoft Employees for Helping Refugees
REDMOND, Wash., July 6, 2000 — Although Microsoft employees spend their days creating and refining technologies that improve people's lives, it took their efforts in the Kosovo refugee crisis last year to remind them of just how profound technology's impact can be.
That was when several dozen employees in the company's European offices created a computer-based method that helped refugees regain some of their dignity. The Refugee Field Kit provided the displaced people -- most of whom had been stripped of their identity papers while fleeing Kosovo -- new, official identity cards and an easier method for finding missing family members.
"During a refugee crisis, the first thing a refugee focuses on is survival: life and death. After they're safe, they focus on making sure their loved ones are safe," said Deputy High Commissioner Frederick "Rick" Barton, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "This is where Microsoft employees literally came to the rescue."
"You get into this business because you'd like to see your work used to improve the human condition. And we can take great satisfaction when we see our software used in the workplace, in schools and in the home. But to see software used in the darkest corners of the Earth to help reunite people with their families -- that's pretty satisfying," said Frank Schott.
Schott, who led the project to develop the Refugee Field Kit, is currently general manager of Microsoft's small business division in Redmond, but he was in the company's European headquarters in Paris at the time of the Kosovo crisis.
On a recent a visit to the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, the deputy commisioner in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' office lauded the Microsoft project as a watershed event in the history of refugee relief efforts.
"If you think about how we've done it for the 50 years of the UNHCR's existence, and probably for years before -- essentially with paper and pencil and lists of people -- then you would think it does fit that description," Barton said.
"We needed this significant act of generosity by Microsoft and its employees to move to the next-generation approach," Barton said, during the June 28 visit to thank employees for their help.
At lunchtime in the spring of 1999, Schott recalls, he and several other employees in the Paris office were discussing the refugee tragedy unfolding in Kosovo, a Serbian province in the Balkans region. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians were fleeing violent conflicts with Serbian troops. Surely there was a way Microsoft employees could help relieve the human suffering, they thought.
A discussion with the UNHCR revealed that the agency needed help with a new refugee registration system they were developing. "With hundreds of thousands of refugees, there was a very real need to get these people into a system, because having 800,000 pieces of paper sitting around wasn't a very efficient way to run the operation," Schott said.
So, in a three-month period in 1999, 50 to 60 Microsoft employees -- of the 400 who had volunteered -- donated the equivalent of 12 person-years to the original Refugee Field Kit.
The group raised over $3.5 million in cash and software from Microsoft, and another $600,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Equipment and software for customizing were donated by Microsoft partners Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, ScreenCheck and Securit, a British company with a computerized system for making employee identity cards. They created and tested the system; and trained relief workers in the camps to use and maintain it, Schott said.
"The Microsoft volunteers came from 12 subsidiaries throughout Europe and brought many different skills from different parts of the business. It was a remarkable team. We just rolled up our sleeves and got it done," Schott said. "We customized this system in about four weeks, which was a miracle in and of itself. But the tougher part was still to come, which was actually taking the system into refugee centers in Albania and Macedonia and deploying it. It was probably the most unfriendly environment for computers I have ever seen -- dust and heat and no electricity."
Each Refugee Field Kit consists of a laptop computer, a two-sided color printer and a digital camera, along with the software to enter data on each refugee and produce the identity cards. (The data can be copied later into a larger central database.) For protection from theft and harsh conditions, all the equipment is packaged into a special metal case. Finally, generators had to be found to power the equipment without the fluctuating power levels that are death to computers.
In the time before refugees began returning to Kosovo, the Field Kit helped register 400,000 refugees and issue identity cards for 100,000, Schott said.
Since then, Microsoft employees have donated another three person-years of time improving the system for use at other UNHCR refugee sites and rolling out version 2 of the Refugee Field Kit in Senegal and elsewhere. Most recently, the agency began using the kits to register about 17,000 Afghan refugees in New Delhi and plans are to take the program into three other countries -- Nigeria, Kenya and Zambia -- over the coming months. Barton said this represents a model challenge for the future -- providing services to long-term refugees who are dispersed in cities rather than concentrated in a single camp.
In visiting Microsoft, Barton said he wanted to reinforce not only the UNHCR's gratitude to Microsoft employees but also to talk with them about other ways in which technology might improve services to more than 14 million refugees worldwide.
"The core of the challenge for us is to move beyond just the care and maintenance of refugees -- to come up with new ideas, new partnerships and new resources," Barton said. "A number of the areas would lend themselves to using technology to connect the diaspora of people who are influential in the development of post-conflict societies."
Barton suggested ideas such as creating ways to collect information onto Web sites so dispersed populations can maintain a group identity. Redesigning the overburdened West European asylum system is another urgent need, he said. The reaction from Microsoft employees he met was gratifying, he said.
"What was most impressive was how, with almost everybody that I met, their heart had been touched by this project," Barton said. "To see how their work was making a difference in one of the most important and difficult challenges on Earth -- not one that fits neatly into a business model -- is an experience that's larger than life."
"The Registration project really captures the spirit of giving from Microsoft and its employees," said Bruce Brooks, Microsoft's director of community affairs. "In an environment where hard work is rewarded, employees were able to look beyond that environment and themselves to recognize the needs of others in crisis, and then use their talents and technology to help This is what Microsoft Giving is all about, and we're proud to be a part of this solution to an undeniably global problem."
Schott agreed. "We all lived in rather uncomfortable conditions for quite a while during the Kosovo project," he said. "But I think most of the Microsoft people would say it was a true honor to work with UNHCR in the Balkans. You won't find anybody on the Microsoft volunteer team who wouldn't want to go back."