Helping refugees and displaced persons by shifting the approach to how we help nonprofits

Teenage girl with arm around another girl
Photo credit: Andrew Oberstadt/IRC

Every year on June 20, World Refugee Day, the world focuses its attention on the growing crisis of human displacement; a mounting global tragedy, as there are more refugees today than any time seen since World War II.

A few months ago, I was humbled by my first visit to the Kakuma Refugee Camp, a United Nations camp that opened in 1992 following the arrival of the 23,000 “Lost Boys of Sudan.” The camp was designed to provide capacity for approximately 70,000 residents and now has nearly 190,000 refugees from more than 20 countries. I was awestruck by the vastness of the camp and inspired by the stories of the refugees and the amazing efforts of humanitarian organizations to create opportunities for them.

International Rescue Committee CEO David Miliband
International Rescue Committee CEO David Miliband. Photo credit: Kellie Ryan/IRC

Seeing the Kakuma camp opened my eyes to the scale and graveness of today’s refugee crisis. It also reaffirmed my conviction that the world needs to do more to respond.  As International Rescue Committee CEO David Miliband writes in his book “Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time ,” “Refugees and displaced people have lost everything. But the refugee crisis is also about ‘us’ – what we, living in far greater comfort, stand for, and how we see our place in the world. It is a test of our character. Pass the test and rescue not just refugees but ourselves.” The challenge is immense with over 70 million refugees and internally displaced people.  At Microsoft we certainly don’t have all the answers, but we do know that in order to do more, we also must shift our lens from a traditional approach of corporate social responsibility, to an approach of total social impact to better support the crucial work of nonprofits.

Our response starts with the commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) created by the United Nations. These are benchmarks that paint the vision that the global community wants to see and what we aspire to, across the government, nonprofit and private sectors. But the world needs more than the goals; it needs the resources to achieve them, and according to the United Nations Sustainable Development Group there is a $2.5 trillion dollar annual funding gap across the SDGs. Well-resourced organizations around the world – public and private – will need to do more to make up this gap. Beyond the foundational moral imperative of doing more, there is a strong long-term business case. A recent analysis shows that by meeting the SDG goals, we will unleash an estimated $12 trillion of market opportunities and create 380 million new jobs by 2030.

At Microsoft, we are working to better address this opportunity through our core philanthropic initiatives focused on equipping underserved communities around the world with the digital skills they need to effectively participate in the 21st century economy.  We are also working to amplify the impact of our employee engagement and giving.  However, we are going beyond traditional philanthropic models and creating a social business focused on helping nonprofits access deeper levels of innovation to address social challenges – using our technology and expertise to help humanitarian organizations scale the impact of the workers on front lines, manage and allocate aid, and help populations who need it most. All incremental profits generated from this affordable social business model are then reinvested into philanthropy and innovation for the nonprofit sector. This creates a self-reinforcing flywheel that fuels more impact. By integrating philanthropy with affordably designed social business models we create a total social impact plan that has the ability to scale innovation and impact beyond more traditional approaches.

Outlined below are two examples of how we are leveraging this model to invest in solutions to better support refugees, displaced people, and the communities that host them:

Artificial intelligence to support refugees and displaced people: Last year at the UN General Assembly, Microsoft built on its longstanding support to humanitarian organizations with AI for Humanitarian Action, a $40 million, five-year program. Through AI for Humanitarian Action, we are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to improve the lives of over 70 million displaced people in the world, nearly 26 million of whom are refugees.

As a part of this work, today we are announcing AI for Humanitarian Action projects with two nonprofit organizations, Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) and KIND, to help combat wrongful deportation of asylum seekers in the United States. Both organizations provide legal assistance to asylum seekers and governments’ current processes are challenging while the cases are time sensitive. ASAP works with approximately 3,000 asylum seekers on any given day connecting them with the tools they need to take control of their legal cases and advocate for their families. Using Microsoft speech-to-text artificial intelligence and an Azure-based database, ASAP and KIND are partnering with volunteers and other legal aid organizations to assist families fleeing persecution in their home countries. The AI tool helps their respective staffs efficiently track changing court dates and prioritize cases most in need of emergency legal services.

Digital skills to empower refugees and displaced people: Refugees and displaced people live lives that are disrupted, often forced from the information and basic resources we sometimes take for granted. Yet, they have tremendous energy and are a force for positive change in the world. That’s why we must use the power of technology to route information, skills and knowledge in better ways to displaced people, using technology channels to provide access to education, and help them pursue a new future. Microsoft is working with a number of organizations providing digital skills, including:

  • International Rescue Committee (IRC) to create sustainable programming for refugees and displaced populations around the world, and increasing the efficiency and efficacy of the IRC staff who serve them. This includes “Digital Skills for New Americans in the U.S.,” and “Technology for Livelihoods in Crisis” in Jordan. These programs are designed to be contextually relevant for refugees and the job markets in these countries to find new ways to empower refugees, including women and girls. Through this partnership with Microsoft, IRC aims to create a foundation for career development programming that will be delivered to 45,000 IRC clients over the next five years in the U.S., and to eventually expand trainings for refugee and displaced clients across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. These programs build on deep investments by Microsoft in IRC programs that help IRC provide humanitarian aid and digital skills to crisis-effected communities.
  • Norwegian Refugee Council to deliver education services and solutions to help 400,000 displaced people with digital skills enabling new opportunities.
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to reach over 25,000 refugee young women and men in Kakuma by 2020 with access to accredited, quality and relevant digital learning and market-oriented training opportunities. The partnership will include training and knowledge sharing with UNHCR international teams and local partners, who will help deliver the content. It’s the first stage of a project we intend to scale across multiple countries.
  • UNICEF to ensure that displaced children and young people have access to the education skills they need, are better prepared to reach their potential and are enabled to be the future leaders our world will need. UNICEF and Microsoft, together with the University of Cambridge, are partnering to develop a digital platform, “The Learning Passport,” that will facilitate learning opportunities for displaced young people within and across borders.

As I reflect on my Kakuma visit, it is a vivid memory for me that lives are at stake. I encourage us all to continue working to think how your organization can make an impact. We must push the boundaries of our traditional philanthropic and business models so that our social impact is proportionate to the power and resources we command. We have an obligation and an opportunity to advance a future for everyone. Together, we can do more.

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