UNHCR and Microsoft
Information Technology: A Powerful Tool for Humanitarian Assistance
Information technology can help refugees and displaced people around the world, many of them either born, or thrown, on the wrong side of the "digital divide".
In the past, UNHCR's information technology supported back office data processing. With the advent of personal computing and the tremendous power of the Internet, the UN refugee agency is using information technology to support field operations around the world, often in remote and difficult places. The rapid exchange of information not only helps provide assistance for refugees, but can also save lives.
The Microsoft Example: The Kosovar Refugee Registration Project
In response to the Kosovo crisis in spring 1999, Microsoft and its corporate partners (Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Canon, Kingston Technology, Securit World Ltd. and ScreenCheck B.V.) worked with UNHCR to design and deploy a refugee registration system. Registering refugees and providing identification cards became a priority because the majority of refugees had been stripped of all identification documents. Thirty-five Microsoft volunteers from nine countries supported this effort. UNHCR was impressed by the dedication of Microsoft employees working in the field under difficult and rapidly-changing conditions.
One hundred registration kits were produced, each containing a laptop computer, digital camera, identification card printer and other accessories. Using the system, refugees were registered and their biographical details entered into a database. Identification cards with a photograph and signature were issued. The database was employed in the distribution of aid and proved useful in searching for and reuniting separated families. For their joint efforts, Microsoft and UNHCR have been nominated for a Computerworld Smithsonian Award.
This innovative project has provided new capabilities for registration and operations management, which have been designed, developed and field - tested. In Skopje and Tirana, two refugee data centres were established such that they were linked electronically and able to share identification data of nearly 500,000 refugees. In addition, nearly 13,000 identification cards were issued. Although the registration system was fully operational and prepared to register more refugees, the dramatic mass return of refugees to Kosovo did not allow sufficient time for large-scale issuance of identification cards.
Microsoft and UNHCR have further developed this technology, resulting in the Refugee Field Kit 2000. The new kit has been employed in registration exercises in Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Zambia, Nigeria, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Kenya, Egypt and India.
Praising Microsoft's co-operation, former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata noted, "The use of information technology has been a breakthrough for us in providing assistance to disadvantaged people in remote corners of the world, and often in difficult conditions."