How technology is helping one NGO help millions of people
“We are waiting for a long time, you know” Ali Anmishedali confides, sitting in the shade of a tree outside the Bujanovac refugee residence. He is joined by his wife Nura Salim and two young sons Samir (9), Muhamed (7) and little toddler Lulu (2), taking time out from play in the afternoon sun in Southern Serbia.
An hour north of the FYR Macedonian border, the Bujanovac transit centre is where the family’s eighteen-month journey from Iraq came to a halt in 2016. Fleeing the conflict in their country, the family undertook the dangerous sea-crossing from Turkey to Greece which was followed by months of interminable delay and uncertainty in Macedonia and Serbia that has clearly left its mark. But Ali remains resolute as he plans for their new life in Europe.
Now residing in Budapest, the Anmishedali family was not alone during their journey – they were accompanied each day, and in every step, by the NGO team from SOS Children’s Villages.
World Refugee Day is about helping victims of humanitarian crises as they strive to start over in the face of distressing circumstances, but it is also about recognizing the remarkable work of organizations like SOS that toil behind the scenes in helping to rebuild crushed hopes and lives. While the world’s spotlight may have moved on, SOS Children’s Villages remains firmly committed to helping people like Ali and his family in making their future attainable.
Often working in remote environments and in difficult conditions, however, SOS is faced with numerous challenges. Out in the field, staff don’t have the luxury of a stable, permanent infrastructure, and information can’t be shared normally, as it would in an office environment. Internet connections, if present, can be unstable, contributing to resource and collaboration issues.
As an early adopter of Microsoft cloud, SOS has since been able to scale their support and services that have benefited many like the Anmishedali family along the Balkan route. Zoran Murgoski, SOS Children’s Villages ICT Advisor describes the problems the NGO faced prior to its technological transformation:
“The consequences were mainly operational in nature: field staff efficiency and productivity, alongside organizational measures were not efficient. Communication was difficult, and exchanging information with the main office and other NGOs was next impossible to without cloud services. The timely flow of important information was not as fast as it should have been.”
Since adopting Microsoft’s cloud services, SOS has been able to overcome some of these challenges, empowering its staff to carry out their roles more effectively, while also providing benefits for the families and individuals that are being helped.
The SOS Children’s Villages’ founder, Hermann Gmeiner, was familiar with the suffering experienced by civil society, having seen the horrors of war first hand as a young man. After World War II, he went on to dedicate his life to helping those orphaned due to conflict, through the NGO he created in Austria in 1949, with the focus on supporting children without parental care, and those at risk of losing it.
SOS Children’s Villages has since evolved and grown its presence to 135 countries and territories around the world, helping hundreds of thousands of children and families each year. Below is a sample of its activities for refugee children and their families on the Balkans:
- SOS is present in many transit residence centre for refugees along the Balkan route as in Bujanovac, southern Serbia, which is where the Anmishedali family stayed. In this way SOS can keep track of families & individuals as they move between centres, so nobody slips between the cracks.
- SOS provides a Child Friendly Space in each residence where the Anmishedali children were able to continue to learn informally and improve their language skills with SOS teachers.
- SOS provides ICT access and learning in their ICT corners in many such residences as is the case in Bujanovac. This is where the three children spent a lot of time playing educational games on the PC, supervised by SOS coordinators.
- They also provided the family with access to much-needed medication and donated items including a baby stroller for Lulu, their two-year-old child.
- The family obtained a three-year residence permit. Once the permit came through, they were reunited with Ali’s brother living in Budapest, who was then able to take over from SOS in helping the family move on.For more information, please visit https://www.sos-childrensvillages.org
By using services such as Exchange, Skype for Business, and OneDrive, SOS now benefits from seamless collaboration across almost any device, without the need to create problematic and expensive infrastructures.
“Before, we could never have imagined two field staff hundreds of kilometres apart working on the same document at the same time, or carrying out a quick meeting while screen-sharing,” Murgoski states. “Office 365 brings all the features of a modern office functionality to a remote location without the need to invest in infrastructure. It binds collaboration and communication in a way that is light years ahead – not only for remote places but also for the office itself.”
At later stages, the NGO began using Staff Hub for organizing daily schedules, alongside multi-factor authentication for increased security. Sway was also used to crate improved reports, while Teams allowed multiple staff members to collaborate more easily.
The benefits of this technological transformation, however, went beyond improving SOS Children’s Village’s operations.
Tech for good
SOS’ digital services also extend to providing desperately needed connectivity for the family and individuals that it helps.
“For refugees, the biggest issue was getting internet access and sharing information with their family and friends,” Murgoski states. “For many, an internet connection was the single most valuable asset for them during their journey. Internet and content sharing was their source of information – it provided them with protection, assistance and transport information, but was also source for education at later stages of development of the refugee crisis.”
SOS is an NGO that recognises the importance of technology skills and believes that such learning will contribute to a more successful integration as refugees settle into their new lives and seek out education and employment opportunities in their host countries. “They will trigger the interest, they will keep the interest and hopefully it will provide them with a career path” explains Katerina Ilievska, SOS Children’s Villages correspondent that works with the families in the centre.
As people stayed longer at camps, the focus shifted on more long-term benefits. SOS recognized the need to provide training courses on programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint, while providing child-friendly spaces.
ICT corners became more than just a space for people to check their e-mails or make calls – they were transformed into mobile classrooms, bringing the benefits of the internet and cloud technologies to the education process. This education is seen as an asset which people can then use at their eventual countries of residence.
“As a company, Microsoft has long admired and supported the work of SOS Children’s Villages around Europe, particularly more recently in their response to the refugee humanitarian situation,” states Sylvie Laffarge, Director of Philanthropies, Microsoft Europe.
“NGOs, as the world’s first responders, often stand on the front-line tackling society’s toughest problems in exceptionally challenging circumstances. When technology and NGOs come together, the potential to transform is unlimited. SOS Children’s Villages has consistently been at the cutting edge in optimizing technology to strengthen their core infrastructure and operational efficiency, in order to better serve the most vulnerable across multiple countries and continents.”
“Every big thing in the world only comes true, when somebody does more than he has to do” Hermann Gmeiner was famously quoted as saying. The unflagging dedication of the SOS Children’s Villages team in their work to help refugees in Europe, bears testament to this as they continue to go above and beyond each day. As part of our mission at Microsoft to empower every person and every organization to achieve more, we are delighted and honored to recognize and support the work of SOS Children’s Villages on World Refugee Day. We believe in what they make possible.
Microsoft Philanthropies recognizes the impact that technology can have on NGOs. Its commitment to donating $1 billion’s worth of cloud computing resources to help 70,000 nonprofit organizations digitally transform, scale their impact, and serve the public good, was reached a year early.
Learn more about how you can increase your social impact through Microsoft’s software donation program https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/nonprofits