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On the wall behind his desk in his New York City office, UNICEF CIO André Spatz has hung a framed CPU and a 32-megabyte memory board from an old Wang computer. It's debatable if the old-school circuitry succeeds as art, but the decommissioned hardware resonates as deeply with Spatz as most anything in the Louvre.

"Until 1999, when I turned off this Wang, that's what most of the organization was running on," the 49-year-old Swiss national explains, clearly enjoying the stupefaction that "1999" and "Wang," together in the same sentence, elicits from his guest. "When I arrived in 1997, we had no global IT organization—few LANs, no WAN. In fact, 70 percent of our countries had less than 1,000 bits-per-second connectivity, and that was dial-up to New York! As backup for the Wangs, we had diskettes and paper printouts sent by diplomatic pouch." Glancing back at the retired Wang parts, Spatz smiles broadly. "It's a symbol of progress and a piece of history."

And so, to a degree, is the IT transformation Spatz has led at UNICEF, the 58-year-old nonprofit children's health, education and relief organization established—but not funded—by the United Nations General Assembly. Presently, UNICEF has 8,000 staff and volunteers working from 245 locations in 158 countries; in 2004, its operating "income"—all of it in the form of donations from governments and private parties—is expected to reach $1.7 billion. Five years after he shut off that last Wang, Spatz has seen to it that UNICEF has standardized its desktop programs and server architectures, and the organization now boasts a fully deployed SAP enterprise resource planning system, a global wide-area network, a virtual private network accessible from 126 field offices, Voice over IP phones in more than 90 countries, and Net access at a minimum of 128K bps everywhere the organization operates. Under Spatz, UNICEF has also codeveloped a "Fly-Away emergency IP VSAT"(very small aperture terminal), essentially a satellite system with QoS, firewall, switches, wireless and IT back office in a set of rugged metal shelf boxes that can be landed by plane and be up-and-running in under four hours. Fly-Away VSATs have already seen duty in Liberia and Iraq.

What makes his IT upgrades all the more impressive is that Spatz has had to convince himself, and others, that every dollar spent today on IT will do more, in the long run, than a dollar spent on medicines or life-preserving vaccines. (UNICEF is the world's largest provider of vaccines for poor countries.) A further challenge: There is little budgetary carryover from one year to the next at UNICEF, so it's hard to book multiyear implementations.

Mind you, it's not as though Spatz has gone unrecognized for his efforts. On another wall in his office, mixed in with workflow diagrams and agendas, are scores of awards and press clips. There's even a new Hewlett-Packard print ad, ripped from The Wall Street Journal: Aptly enough, Spatz has become a poster child, of sorts, for H-P's Adaptive Enterprise campaign.

Welcome as all the attention has been, such "glamour," Spatz says, can be distracting, too. And it isn't as if he doesn't have plenty to do. For starters, natural disasters, AIDS and war continue to create fresh hells for children—and such emergencies require an immediate response from UNICEF even as its staff tries to tackle more chronic problems such as unsafe drinking water. For another thing, funding for humanitarian initiatives like UNICEF's has been, if anything, shrinking. Spatz says this means that IT has become a "competitive differentiator" for UNICEF—a way to demonstrate that a dollar donated to UNICEF goes further toward helping the world's kids than it might at other relief agencies. In a recent interview with Executive Editor Brad Wieners, he revealed how he's made the most of his IT budget.

Non-Profit Does Not Mean Non-Compete
Humanitarian nonprofits such as UNICEF have their work cut out for them battling natural disasters, droughts, famine and childhood diseases. But one thing they don't have to worry about is fierce competition, right? Wrong. Here's a snapshot of UNICEF's competitive "market."
Organization Mission Revenue 2003 Annual budget spent on programs* Budget from government sources
The American Red Cross Provides relief to victims of disasters and helps people prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies. $3 billion 91% 2%
C.A.R.E (cooperative for assistance and relief everywhere, inc.) Works to reduce poverty through community-based projects in education, healthcare and economic development; aims to strengthen communities with information, skills and resources. $525 million 91% 63%
UNICEF Mandated by the UN to advocate for children's rights and health, work to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and promote children's education. $1.7 billion 80% 68%
World Vision International Christian humanitarian organization serving the poor worldwide through community development and disaster relief. $1.25 billion 82% 20%

*Versus fundraising and overhead
Source: CIO Insight

This article was originally published on 08-01-2004
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