Insight | TSF and Inmarsat – a humanitarian partnership


TSF and Inmarsat – a humanitarian partnership


Jean-François Cazenave, President and Co-founder of Télécoms Sans Frontières, charts the essential relationship between the aid agency and Inmarsat that ensures critical connectivity is set up in conflict and disaster zones.

In many ways, Télécoms Sans Frontières (TSF) and Inmarsat have always worked hand-in-hand in the humanitarian field. Let’s start by looking back to the foundation of Télécoms Sans Frontières in the late nineties. Our story began during the first Gulf War and emergencies in the Balkans and Kurdistan.

Monique Lanne-Petit, now the director of TSF, and myself, who at the time were giving our time to general humanitarian aid, realised that in addition to medical and food supplies, there was a critical need for reliable emergency telecommunications services.

Conflicts and disasters often lead to massive displacements of civilian families, meaning that people are separated from their loved ones. No communications structures were in place to help them find assistance or their family. One of our most striking memories is seeing hordes of displaced people queuing up to receive disaster aid, each of them with a small piece of paper folded into their shoe with a telephone number written on it. They would beg us: “When you get back to France, please call this number and let my family know that I am still alive, that I have survived and that we are safe in such-and-such a town.”

It was at this very moment that Monique and I came to the realisation that beyond food and medical aid, these vulnerable people also had a vital need to communicate with their loved ones to ask for help or simply to inform them that they were still alive.

To address the need for communications services, we bought our first satellite telephone in 1998 and the organisation Télécoms Sans Frontières was born. TSF soon found that the international response teams also had a critical need for reliable telecommunications services in the first days after an emergency. Therefore, we expanded our operations, improved our technology, and began to establish rapidly deployable emergency telecommunications centres to serve the various agencies of the United Nations, local and national governments and NGO relief workers. TSF developed a reputation as being one of the first responders on the ground following a given crisis – a reputation that still stands 16 years later.

In 2000, Inmarsat became the very first official partner of TSF, understanding our mission to bring communications to the hundreds of thousands of people who have been cut off and isolated from the world through natural disasters and conflicts. Inmarsat’s commitment as well as its equipment and technology is essential for our work – it allows us to arrive in the field and set up the latest in satellite communications technology in the first hours following a disaster.

Within a matter of minutes, BGANs and IsatPhone Pros are deployed to provide priority humanitarian telephone calls for the affected population and to generate vital communications coordination centres for fellow NGOs, United Nations agencies and governmental/local institutions on the ground. It is in the first hours following a disaster that the most lives can be saved and it is thanks to Inmarsat that we are able to do this.

About the author

Before dedicating his life to TSF, Jean-François had already founded two other ‘traditional’ humanitarian organisations, participating in interventions in Kurdistan and the Balkans. With TSF, he has led humanitarian calling operations and telecom support activities, supporting NGOs and the United Nations agencies, managing TSF’s emergency actions in over 65 countries worldwide, assisting more than 830 NGOs, UN agencies, rescue teams and hundreds of thousands of affected civilians, offering them free calls.

In 2010, Jean-François was decorated Chevalier de La Légion d’Honneur, by decree of the President of France, for his decades of work in humanitarian relief. Appointment to the Légion d’Honneur is the highest decoration in France. He has held positions as a civil servant and senior executive at the French public administration of postal services and telecommunications (PTT) and from 1995 to 2001 was city councillor of Pau.