What do people want most when conflicts or natural disasters destroy their homes or make them refugees? After nearly a decade of international humanitarian work, a handful of volunteers from the southwestern French city of Pau made the surprising observation that in the hours after catastrophe strikes, a phone call was worth as much to most dispossessed people as food or clothing. This eventually led them to launch Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF), a non-governmental organization specialized in providing voice and data communications in disaster areas.
Today, TSF has bases in three countries—France, Nicaragua and Thailand—and a nimble staff of 20 employees and 30 consultants who can be on the ground within 24 hours in emergency zones anywhere in the world. The organization’s budget ranges from €2 to €3 million a year and is funded by the European Commission, the United Nations Foundation (created with a $1 billion donation from CNN founder Ted Turner) and a smattering of global telecommunications heavyweights such as AT&T and Vodafone.
France Magazine recently spoke with co-founder Jean-François Cazenave, who recounted his organization’s origins and expanding mission.
Where did you get the idea for TSF?
TSF founder Jean-François Cazenave with children in Niger during the 2005 famine.
Photo: Télécoms Sans Frontières
In the beginning, we were simply a group of aid workers distributing food and medical supplies on behalf of organizations such as Solidarité Pyrénéenne and SOS Action Humanitaire. Our first mission was delivering food to Iraqi Kurdistan back in April 1991. In November of that same year, we entered the besieged Croatian city of Vukovar with a 38-ton truck packed with medical supplies; it was part of a partnership we had at the time with Pharmaciens Sans Frontières. Then between 1992 and 1996, we volunteered in Bosnia-Herzegovina, leading 50 aid convoys through the besieged cities of Sarajevo and Mostar.
Everywhere we went—Iraqi Kurdistan, Croatia, Bosnia—people would pull a little piece of paper out of their shoe with a phone number scribbled on it. They’d point to the number and say, “When you’re back in France, when you’re back in Europe, please call these families and tell them we’re alive.” Or they’d say, “I have a child who’s dead, and I have no news of my other child, who was separated from me during the displacement.” Or, “My uncle is dead, but my husband is in a prison camp. Give some news, tell my family I’m here.” And so on and so forth. Gradually, we realized that there was a need among refugees that hadn’t been met: the need for people to get in touch with their next of kin.
When did you first try to meet that need?
In June 1998, we set up our first satellite calling operations with SOS Action Humanitaire in Albania, along the Kosovo border, about 10 hours (in a four-wheel drive) from Tirana.
The region was totally cut off from communication networks. Overnight, refugees would cross the border, walk through the mountains and take shelter on the Albanian side. They were hungry and some were injured or wounded. Yet instead of heading for the food counter or the medical unit, they headed straight for our single satellite phone.
That’s when we realized that in the early days of an emergency, communicating with relatives and friends was often more important than eating or getting medical help. People wanted direct and immediate telephone contact. What was incredible was that a week later, we saw the first German, French, British and Italian cars pull into this remote corner of Albania to pick up relatives—all thanks to the phone calls they’d received on our phone line. In July, we founded Télécoms Sans Frontières.
Did your Balkan operations end there?
No. In April 1999, we intervened along the Macedonian border. Slobodan Milosevic had just ousted one million Kosovars—500,000 on the Albanian side and 500,000 on the Macedonian side. At that point, we still had only one satellite phone.
Initially, there were 400 people in our camp; three days later, there were 25,000. A line a kilometer long formed in front of that single satellite phone. People stood patiently all night and for much of the next day to make a call. Before long, CNN, CBS, the BBC, France 2, TF1 and other major world media came to film this endless queue of people waiting to use that lone satellite phone.
Bernard Kouchner, then the French Minister of Health, was in Thessaloniki, Greece, at the time. I was told that he saw the report on CNN and wondered who these Télécoms Sans Frontières people were. Immediately afterward, the French Foreign Ministry contacted us and donated 10 satellite phones.
Where did your funding come from in those early days?
That first donation from the French Foreign Ministry started our cooperation with them, although that was the only time they gave us any financial support. After that, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees asked us to help them in every emergency situation, which we did for the next two years, going to Eritrea, Guinea Conakry and so on.
Meanwhile, in August 1999, we became involved in Turkey after the earthquake. We put all of our voice-based satellite communications equipment at the service of aid organizations. And we found that what was true of refugee populations—that they had no communications equipment—was also true of aid organizations. They had no satellite equipment allowing them to coordinate their operations and react quickly. So a second window opened for TSF: supporting aid organizations. For years after that, we set up satellite telephone links for those organizations.
When did the Internet come in?
In 2001, TSF received its first mobile data satellite equipment, meaning for Internet connections. It was transportable and weighed approximately 20 kilos. When we entered Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, in November 2001, we set up the first satellite connection for aid organizations arriving on the scene.
Did you help out during the Iraq War too?
Yes. In April 2003, we followed U.S. forces into Baghdad and set up the first telecommunications center for international aid organizations there. For eight months, every international aid organization working in Baghdad hooked up using TSF’s satellite services. It was our first partnership with the European Commission, which later became a very important partner in pretty much all of our missions. Since 2002, we have been the telecom partner for the European Commission’s Aid Department (ECHO).
Can you give any specific examples of instances where TSF has saved someone’s life?
We save lives by saving precious time. One example occurred in Bam, Iran, during the 2003 earthquake. People from France’s civil defense agency were there, and one of their surgeons pointed out a little girl whose leg could be saved if she could get to a Paris hospital—otherwise, it would have to be amputated. The problem was that the child had just lost her mother, lived alone with her father and had no identity papers, so it was impossible to get her out of the country. The Iranian authorities said they were prepared to draw up administrative documents according to standard procedures, but that would have taken much too long. So we photographed the child’s face and sent it to Tehran; they put it on a document, scanned it and sent it to Bam via our satellite connection. The child was able to fly out that day, and her leg was saved that night in Paris.
What is your current funding picture?
Most of our financing comes from telecommunications companies, the UN Foundation, the European Commission, the Conseil Régional d’Aquitaine and other similar entities.
What’s the future for TSF?
Recently, we’ve become increasingly involved in a number of programs that use communications to promote health. One of our earliest experiences was in Niger in 2005, during the famine. When we arrived, there were thousands and thousands of dead children, even though there were prevention systems in place monitoring indicators such as the circumference of a child’s upper arm, the price of millet in the village and the number of sudden bovine deaths. All of these indicators were sent weekly to a central body that alerted institutions such as the World Food Programme, which could declare an emergency in the area. But these villages were located a two-days’ drive—in a four-wheel-drive vehicle—from the first paved road. Sometimes the information reached the capital by bicycle, bus or camel, if it got there at all.
With the European Commission, we decided to set up satellites in all these remote areas—in Nigeria, Mali, Chad, the Algerian desert. That way, information would arrive instantly. We spent two years working on that project.
Concretely, what happens when an emergency situation arises in some corner of the world?
From our three regional bases and our branch in Washington, volunteers can be mobilized in three hours to fly out to wherever they may be needed. They can reach any part of the world within 24 hours and be fully operational. Our equipment is light and easily transportable. You can’t be a big machine if you’re going to respond rapidly. We’re an emergency NGO, we have to be able to go everywhere and to get there fast.
What were some of your recent missions? Were you in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami?
Of course. We provided telecom support from Tokyo for the first UN units. After that, we ran into logistical problems. It was hard to get around, and after six days, we left for safety reasons.
Yes. We’re no strangers to war zones. We were the first aid group to enter Baghdad, among the first in Afghanistan, first at the Libyan border. We know how to do that. But we don’t know how to provide aid following a disaster at a nuclear power plant. So we decided to fly our personnel back.
Are you in Libya at the moment?
Yes. Initially, we set up operations on the Tunisian side of the Libyan border, where we faced an outpouring of refugees. Between February 23 and May 13, we made 40,000 satellite connections for a total of 115 different nationalities. That’s a record for us.
TSF’s U.S. Friends
Take a look at the roster of TSF sponsors, and you’ll find a good number of U.S. names—AT&T and Cable & Wireless chief among them. That fan base is poised to expand later this year, when the Friends of TSF, an American 501(c)(3) organization, makes its début. Steering the operation: Paul Margie, a telecoms lawyer who previously served as counsel to Senator John D. Rockefeller IV and as an advisor to FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps.
Margie first came across TSF in 2005, when he was Senior Director for Technology Partnerships at the United Nations Foundation. Together with the Vodafone Foundation, he sought ways to use technology to advance humanitarian missions. Again and again, TSF’s name came up as the emergency telecom leader. “We decided to fund them and help them establish deeper relationships with the UN,” relates Margie.
TSF already has friends in high places on this side of the Atlantic: It works with the State Department and the FCC to coordinate emergency telecom response to disasters, and during the Haiti earthquake, it received help from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Margie did some TSF fieldwork himself during the Haiti catastrophe, which shut down landlines and mobile phones. “We went into the makeshift camps every day and provided free three-minute phone calls,” he recalls. “It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had. It brought home to me in a very personal way that there is a human need in these terrible situations to reconnect with family, to let people know where you are, to access the help they can give you when all the official emergency-response facilities are struggling.” —SR
Information about donating to TSF or becoming a volunteer is available on friendsoftsf.org.