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Company Focus: What a Tech Giant Learned From the Refugee Crisis

In the second of a series of interviews with private-sector leaders who pledged to help address the refugee crisis, we speak to Jane Meseck of Microsoft Philanthropies about the technology company’s work with refugees.

Written by Charlotte Alfred Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A refugee student reads on a computer on Sept. 6, 2016, at the Kiziba camp in western Rwanda. AFP/STEPHANIE AGLIETTI

Tech giant Microsoft has been training youth and marginalized groups in I.T. skills for years. But when the company recently decided to work with refugees, it initially thought I.T. skills wouldn’t be relevant for people on the move.

Yet as borders in Europe closed this spring, and many refugees became stuck along the route, Microsoft realized it needed to address “what these refugees want to do while they are where they are,” says Jane Meseck, senior director of global programs at Microsoft Philanthropies.

For many, their first priority is how to make a living, making I.T. skills as important as ever, she says.

Microsoft is one of 51 companies that responded this year to President Barack Obama’s call to the private sector to help ease the refugee crisis. The company pledged to build on its work with the U.N. and nonprofits to help refugees get access to technology and develop work skills.

Microsoft’s refugee programs are focused on three areas: providing nonprofits on the front lines of refugee response with technology, data and data insight; providing refugees with access to technology, for example, with Skype vouchers or Wi-Fi hotspots; and helping refugees with employability, from psychosocial support to I.T. skills to providing skills certification.

As part of our interview series with private-sector leaders engaging with the refugee crisis, Refugees Deeply spoke to Meseck about Microsoft’s work with refugees to date.

Refugees Deeply: How did Microsoft’s work with refugees first come about?

Jane Meseck: We’ve been doing emergency response work for at least a couple of decades, but very much focused on natural disaster. I think you’ll find that very common with a lot of private-sector companies.

When Microsoft Philanthropies was formed a year ago as a standalone department in the office of the president [of Microsoft], we took on that function and also expanded our charter to cover natural disasters, health epidemics and man-made emergencies. Now we have a new charter, we have a cross-company approach to sudden-onset emergencies and a portfolio of assets we can draw from, from cash to technology to Microsoft consulting services to free Skype calling at times of disaster. We’re also expanding our long-term programming to help people affected by these emergencies, whether natural, health or man-made – which is where our work with refugees falls.

At the same time, the Obama request came through to us last December about what we were doing and how we can do more. The timing was great because we were thinking about how we were going to do more in this space.

Refugees Deeply: How does the company decide the most useful and efficient roles for Microsoft to play in refugee response?

Meseck: We spent a lot of time learning from experts, UNHCR and NGOs. I’ve spent a lot of time in the region, talking to people, especially the refugees. You understand what’s happening and where the needs are, and then you look back at where we have expertise, and where those types of things make a difference. Then we work with organizations to see where it makes sense for us to fill a gap, and who else we need to bring to the table.

So it is a process, and it does take some time, which can often be frustrating to people at Microsoft. They think we should be doing something right away. But it is an important puzzle to fix and make right, because it’s a really complex space. This is one of the more complex environments and situations that we’ve ever really engaged in. You’ve got so many moving parts.

For example, we had one program bringing connectivity and phones and programs to refugees in Jordanian camps. Just before we implemented it, there was a decision by the military and the government not to provide connectivity. The last thing I want to do is politicize that issue. But things change, and they change really quickly. So we have to be able to be patient, and listen to what’s going on and then be agile and adjust to what makes sense.

Refugees Deeply: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far in your work with refugees? What have you learned about the risks and opportunities that companies may face in addressing the refugee crisis?

Meseck: There are new actors that we are trying to get to know and learn about, as well as the beneficiaries. We’ve never seen anything like the Syrian refugee crisis before. All of those things make this really hard, and a learning experience for us.

You also have to be careful about what you do, because as a company you have that tension with what the impact could be back on the business. We’re always balancing the tension between doing good and doing good for the business. Sometimes those are perfect matches, and sometimes they are in tension. In this case, this is a really sensitive and often political situation.

This is why a lot of private companies haven’t engaged in man-made conflict before. This is a new space for most of us – we’ve stayed in the “safer” space of natural disaster. One of the reasons is that it could be very political. You look at the politics in Europe related to refugees coming in, and there is risk at a local level – a local government not being happy with us for supporting a refugee project in their community, for example. So we have to balance and understand the political context more in this situation than we have in other situations, like youth I.T. training programs, which are more neutral. This is a little bit different and we have to be super aware of the political context, the local political situation and where our help is welcome and where it’s not. Doing the right thing with the right people is more important than rushing because of the risk.

That includes risks to the refugees themselves. One thing we learned was that NGOs are collecting a lot of personal information around refugees, but largely they weren’t thinking about security and privacy. The risk of being hacked – and quite frankly some of them were being hacked – and what the hackers could do with that data could be really bad. So we worked with NetHope to help develop some resources, toolkits and knowledge around how NGOs can better protect themselves and better protect their data. A lot of that is rolling out now across the NetHope membership and we hope to cascade that down more broadly to local nonprofits. We didn’t go in thinking data security was something we were going to do, but pretty early on we realized that what we thought we were going to be doing was not necessarily what was needed right away.

Refugees Deeply: How will you measure the success of the initiative and what are your goals in terms of impact?

Meseck: We’ve been having some discussions with others, especially NGOs, about what impact means in this situation. In the short term, we’re really focused on how many refugees we’re reaching – more an outcome measure than impact. We are also measuring the capacity we’re building for nonprofits through their technology. In the short term a lot of our impact it is going to be anecdotal, because the measure of impact is going to be in flux for a while. I think the whole sector is trying to figure this out.

One of the longer-term things we’re working on is how we work in partnership with other companies, donors and with NGOs. We have all these individual commitments, but how can we bring those together for greater impact?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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