TSF co-founders look back on 20 years of humanitarian aid

Publication date: Jun 13, 2018
We interviewed Télécoms Sans Frontières’ co-founders Monique Lanne-Petit and Jean-François Cazenave on the highs and lows of the organisation's 20 year history.

Tell us about how it all started
Télécoms Sans Frontières has always been a human scale organisation. We started our operations from a real need we identified in the field, with nothing but our passion for giving a voice to people silenced by humanitarian disasters. Throughout the years, technologies and telecommunications evolved, and we evolved with them, but the same passion, shared by the whole team, remained unchanged. Seeing that we are still making a difference in the lives of people in need is invaluable. Our work as humanitarians began back in 1991. At the time we both had full-time jobs in the public and private sector and we would use our spare time to provide aid in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. We had actually founded two other organisations before TSF - Solidarité Pyrénéenne and S.O.S. Action Humanitaire.

So, how did these two organisations morph into what we know today as Télécoms Sans Frontières?
We never tire from telling this story. The observation was simple – when we were in the field providing general humanitarian aid, people would approach us gingerly. In their hand was a slither of crinkled paper that they would remove from inside their shoe. Holding out the weathered paper, they would point to the number that was written on it and say, “When you get back home, promise me you will call this number. Promise me you will call my wife, my daughter, my mother, father, friends and neighbours, and let them know I am alive and well”. Such instances became less and less isolated, and as the need for exposed and vulnerable people to communicate became more and more apparent, we created Télécoms Sans Frontières.”

How did you go on to turn what was essentially a group of people with a satellite phone into a fully-fledged NGO?
The needs on the ground were unmistakeable. The issue we had was finding the necessary financial support in order to help us grow. We signed our first partnership with a private-sector company in 2000, and from that moment onwards we were able not only to purchase more equipment, but also employ our first staff members, open our first offices and brush up our image. We then went on to sign several more partnerships with the private sector and continue to grow and develop our organisation.”

We get the impression that the partnership with the private sector is something that is particularly important to you?
Absolutely! We are incredibly lucky to have a portfolio of loyal, understanding and committed partners. They are all global leaders in their domain, principally from the satellite and mobile communications sector. They provide us with the necessary means to be as nimble, flexible and rapid as we can, in order for us to deploy whenever and wherever in under 24 hours and help spare lives in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Beyond the support we receive from the private sector, TSF also has developed a strong relationship with the public sector and can benefit from, among others, European funding for specific missions or projects.”

Has this support allowed you to branch out and respond to a wider range of humanitarian issues?
It has. Whilst our core mission remains unchanged, the ways in which we provide communications aid today has somewhat evolved and continues to do so with every mission that we undertake. We are required to respond to all types of communications trends, from social media to communications apps such as Messenger and WhatsApp, whilst taking into account the evolving usage habits of the humanitarian community – Cloud sharing and VoIP services for example. All of that requires higher bandwidth capacities and a heavier involvement of our technical teams. Whatever we do and whichever service we provide, the beneficiary always remains at the heart of our work and we do everything to ensure that his or her needs are met. Beyond emergencies we now apply technology to a range of pressing humanitarian issues, from education to food security.”

What are your highlights from the past two decades?
One thing that stands out the most and one thing that we are both particularly proud of is that fact that TSF has been present in all major disasters. We have covered over 70 countries and countless beneficiaries. The missions that stand out for us are our ongoing response to the Syria Crisis, our key involvement in the Nepal earthquake response, the Haiti earthquake in 2010 that mobilised TSF in its entirety for weeks on end, and the Tsunami in 2004 where we covered the three affected countries simultaneously. All of our missions are of utmost importance to us, whether they last 6 years like in Syria, or just two weeks. The most important thing for us is to ensure that the requirements are covered, and for this, we need to be on the ground, interacting with our beneficiaries.”

What would you say was the biggest hurdle you have faced?
Twenty years ago the idea of using technologies and telecommunications in the humanitarian field was seen as controversial and untested.  It is now firmly established. Largely as a result of TSF’s efforts, public, private, and NGO actors no longer see technologies and telecommunications as a luxury in emergency response and humanitarian action—they understand them to be an essential priority. In overcoming this obstacle, we enabled engineers, technicians and programmers to become part of the humanitarian world and that is something we are particularly proud of. Despite these obstacles and the scepticism of many, we have always remained committed to our core mission since our foundation: to give people a voice, to allow them to make the right decisions to get through humanitarian crises and to provide reliable telecommunications for a more effective humanitarian response.

We can see that Télécoms Sans Frontières has branched out quite a lot since its initial calling operations 20 years ago. How do you see the future of the NGO?
Since its creation, TSF has been committed to constantly innovate in order to address a changing technological and humanitarian landscape. Being on the ground quickly, effectively, and consistently makes TSF different from any other technology-oriented NGO, and allows us to demonstrate how technologies and telecommunications alleviate families’ pain, improve the operations of other first responders, and save lives.
Relentless innovators, TSF teams work hard to adapt innovative technologies to our beneficiaries’ needs. They experiment on how to integrate the latest new commercial developments into our field work and they collaborate directly with manufacturers and service providers so they can maximise the effectiveness of their products in emergency situations. When off-the-shelf commercial products are not available or do not fit with field requirements, our teams also work on the development of in-house solutions.
The result, is the ability to meet our beneficiaries’ needs in a wide range of humanitarian contexts through tailored solutions. TSF is a human-scale organisation. We continue to adapt our response to the needs of the field, depending on each context as well as on the available innovative tools; always committed to a responsible use of these technologies.