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Telecom charity makes all the right connections - telecommunications in the developing world.

Telecom charity makes all the right connections - telecommunications in the developing world

Medical and food aid are the most pressing requirements of people caught up in catastrophes such as famine, war and flood. But there is also, usually, an urgent need for reliable emergency-telecommunication services. Conflicts and emergencies often lead to massive civilian displacement and separated families, with affected people unable to find help and loved ones. This can happen at just the time that the telecommunication system is broken.

The result used to be that hard-pressed aid workers had yet an additional pressure heaped upon them. They were often approached by refugees with scraps of paper asking them, for example: ‘When you go home, please call my family at this number. Tell them I am alive – though my uncle has been killed. I am here at this refugee camp.’

Saran (Computer Weekly, 13 May 2008) reports that such scenarios led to the birth, 10 years ago in the French city of Pau, of Télécoms Sans Frontieres, the first humanitarian organization to specialize in emergency telecommunications. Since this time, on every mission it has offered a three-minute call to any affected family. But its work has also expanded to establishing reliable services to international-response teams in the first days after an emergency.

During a decade of operations in crisis zones such as the Balkans, Kurdistan, Afghanistan and the Gulf, it has developed a reputation for being among the first to arrive after disaster has struck. It aims to deploy a telecommunication centre within 24 hours of an emergency, using highly portable satellite terminals with worldwide coverage for broadband, voice communications, fax lines and all the information-technology equipment needed for a field office.

As founding director Monique Lanne-Petit comments: ‘In emergencies there is an urgent need for food, water, shelter and medical help. None of these is possible without quick and reliable communications. Our role is to help other organizations to save lives – and, of course, directly to support the victims.’

In developing countries, where many of these emergencies occur, the subsistence of millions of people depends on the work of not-for-profit organizations. Matzkin (Journal of Knowledge Management, Vol 12 No 4 2008) reveals, from a study of 106 non-profit organizations operating in Peru, that many know little in detail about knowledge management, although many observe implicit KM practices on a large scale. The author argues that more formalized knowledge-management awareness and practices could create more efficient organizations and help them to overcome their lack of financial resources.

Knowledge management is not the only area that could improve efficiency in the developing world. There is great scope to increase the usage of modern information and communications technology in general.

Research by Gupta et al. (Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Jun 2008) on Internet use in the Indian environment ministry reveals that employees are more likely to employ modern information technology if it is easy to use, if they believe it will improve their job performance – and crucially, if their bosses want and expect them to use it.

On this basis, Indian civil servants of today are little different from their western counterparts of 10 or 15 years ago.