World Refugee Day: Tech companies, together, can strengthen the safety net

Please don’t create the next trafficking app.” Those were the words I heard a few months ago when I visited a large international humanitarian organization as it focused on helping refugee children from Ukraine. The point of that statement was that too often and despite our best intentions, private sector technology companies, including us, jump in to help during crisis situations without first understanding the ecosystem of standards, privacy, and security necessary for nonprofits to best provide services to the vulnerable populations they serve.

For instance, a single application built for a single organization and point in time too often ends up contributing to a fractured ecosystem of applications that prevents scaled impact.

One of the things I learned by spending 10 years working at a large global health NGO, is that digital technology cannot solve complex social issues by itself. Technology is a tool, a valuable tool even, but it is also best used when part of a systems-based approach inclusive of policy, standards, program delivery, and cross-sector alignment. It requires strong public-private partnership, certainly, but also requires private sector companies to collaborate in areas where they naturally compete.

Today, on World Refugee Day, during this year of all years, we are committed to increasing our investments in innovation partnerships to help the millions of refugees across the world. We will do this through continued support of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) as they work tirelessly to support personal safety, health, housing, and family reunification. We will do this by working together across sectors – NGO, public, and private to partner effectively and thoughtfully. And, we are recommitting to aligning with others on standards that benefit refugees. This means, we are committed to partnering across the tech sector to drive lasting impact in the humanitarian space.

These partnerships do work. We recently contributed to a collaboration led by NetHope and its members to establish a common data schema for delivering humanitarian aid to refugees and rural communities. Collaboratively, 15 international humanitarian aid organizations and a dozen private sector companies developed the Frontline Humanitarian Logistics data model, a new data standard designed to create sustainable, interoperable technology capability for the humanitarian community.

We also see tremendous public private partnership driving lasting solutions in the response to the war in Ukraine. As millions of refugees streamed out of Ukraine, many companies leaned in to help. There was an immediate need to align volunteers to refugees in need of services, healthcare, education, and housing.

Where private sector technology companies may normally compete, we have agreed to collaborate in these instances to create lasting solutions that align to international security and privacy standards. We agree to prevent inadvertently contributing to a fractured ecosystem of applications that expose the data of vulnerable populations.

We realize the nuances and challenges around engaging and recognize we don’t have all of the answers. Progress depends on us continuing to work together with our partners to share learnings. Refugees deserve all our attention, lasting support, and for us, as competitors, to align and collaborate for the greater purpose – their survival.

Learn more about Microsoft’s efforts, and reflections on World Refugee Day from Kate Behncken, Vice President, Microsoft Philanthropies