Economic Progress

How businesses can improve humanitarian aid

Raj Kumar
President and Editor-in-Chief, Devex
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Economic Progress

Imagine waking up to water pouring into your home, lapping up against your bed.  You stumble outside to see trees felled and roofs torn away by a stiff wind.  When the storm stops, life too stands still: no power, blocked roads, closed businesses.

This experience has been all too real for some people, like those I met recently in Tacloban, the Philippines city famously inundated during Typhoon Haiyan.  There I had the honour of meeting aid workers from around the country (and the world) who formed part of the massive humanitarian response.  Every acronym-ed agency was there too, from OCHA and UNICEF to ADB.

But one group – and not a small one – was notably absent: the private sector. Global corporations are increasingly engaged in humanitarian and development work; organizations such as WFP and Save the Children are creating new avenues for working with them.  But, by and large, the private sector is not yet a major player in the humanitarian community.

That’s a problem for a couple of reasons.  The first is that the number and scale of humanitarian disasters – both natural and manmade – are growing rapidly. Ahead lie years of climate-related storms, rising tides and droughts, as well as ongoing conflicts exacerbated by the same. In a world with more crises, more resources and expertise – including from the private sector – are needed.

The second reason is that the private sector can do something that is substantively different from what humanitarian agencies and NGOs can do. Of course they can donate funds – something they have been doing for many years – but where companies can really add value is in developing sustainable business as a response to humanitarian disaster. They can bring their expertise to rebuilding the infrastructure of markets, from telecommunications to payment processing, financial services to supply chains. And, importantly, they are well-suited to creating self-sustaining business models that can support recovery, in addition to the necessary donations of money and supplies in the aftermath of a disaster.

What I saw in Tacloban is emblematic of many humanitarian disasters: after the immediate response, housing and livelihoods are the toughest challenges to tackle. That’s because they require substantial economic changes, from building new markets to training people for new jobs. Here, the private sector can help create that new economy as a partner to governments and humanitarian agencies.

All of this may sound like an exciting opportunity, but structural challenges are getting in the way. That’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the Forum’s new Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response. This council was born out of a conversation with Valeria Amos, the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who lamented that we as a humanitarian community have not yet created a pathway for fully engaging the private sector. And, of course, the Forum is perfectly positioned to bring together all the key stakeholders to both identify the barriers and, importantly, take tangible steps towards overcome them.

This council, which I am honoured to chair, will take an entrepreneurial, demand- and design-driven approach. We will begin by trying to fully understand the problems. And we’ll end not just with a report or recommendation, but with a tangible product: standards, agreements, online platforms and the like that directly address today’s barriers to private-sector involvement. We might hone in on a specific initiative such as a mobile payment system for humanitarian response or seed a series of platforms to address a range of market-based needs. At this point, it’s too early to say.

But it’s not too early to lay out a challenge and request. As we begin our work, we hope to engage with a range of global corporations, aid agencies and humanitarians so we can hear from you directly about what is needed and what can be done. Together, we are ready to roll up our sleeves to work for solutions that benefit everyone.

Explore the World Economic Forum’s network of Global Agenda Councils.

Author: Raj Kumar is president and editor-in-chief of Devex. He is chair of the World Economic Forum’s new Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response.

Image: A boy receives humanitarian aid in Duma, Damascus March 29, 2014. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

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