Resilience, Peace and Security

What role should corporations play in humanitarian response?

Malawians queue for food aid distributed by the United Nations World Food Progamme (WFP) in Mzumazi village near the capital Lilongwe, February 3, 2016.

Image: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Raj Kumar
President and Editor-in-Chief, Devex
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The World Humanitarian Summit is taking place in Istanbul and, for at least a few days, global attention will focus on refugees, conflict, and disasters. Many corporations will be present in Istanbul but questions still remain about what role they can and should play.

Most remain on the sidelines of the humanitarian community, invited for their perspective but not considered peers to the UN agencies and NGOs that have long provided humanitarian relief in emergencies around the world.

For sceptics who continue to see the corporate role as limited to cheque-writing for humanitarian causes and for corporate executives who wonder why and how they might engage in some of the poorest and most conflict-ridden places in the world, here are three tangible ideas for stepping up in the post-World Humanitarian Summit era.

Image: Global Humanitarian Assistance

A written humanitarian strategy

Major corporations aren't so unlike UN agencies or governments: they're big bureaucracies too. Engaging in a significant way in the humanitarian community won't happen unless executives and boards see a clear strategic imperative to do so.

One way to get there is for corporations to draft their own written humanitarian strategy. A strategy of this kind could help clarify criteria for understanding when emergencies directly impact a particular company - its employees, suppliers, or customers - and thus help make the case for prioritizing humanitarian engagement.

It can also help focus efforts around particular strengths - technology, expertise, or supply chains - that would add unique value to the humanitarian system. Major corporations aren't going to respond to every crisis, but a written strategy can help them move from individual decisions each time a crisis strikes to a sustained engagement in the humanitarian community. That kind of engagement is what's needed to help transform the humanitarian sector into an innovative, data-driven, results-oriented ecosystem.

Make the move from supplies to currency

Nearly all humanitarian aid is delivered in the form of goods - tents, medical supplies, food - and very little (perhaps 3% by most estimates) reaches people in the form of currency - cash, vouchers, or mobile money.

This is a major inefficiency in a sector that is perpetually underfunded. Delivering supplies only when they are needed can dramatically reduce logistics, transportation, and procurement costs while helping local economies bounce-back and giving people the dignity that comes with making their own choices about what they and their family needs.

But trying to roll-out a currency delivery system after a disaster is tough. Where mobile banking exists before an emergency strikes, it becomes much easier to leverage that existing system to get currency in the hands of people who need it quickly. For example, when Ebola struck West Africa and the normal methods of paying healthcare workers broke down, a key intervention was using mobile money to pay them their wages so they could continue to work while supporting their families.

Of course telecommunications and payment companies have a big role to play here. But all major corporations can make an impact by ensuring their own staff, their suppliers, and the employees who work for their suppliers are all paid through electronic payment networks. Including people in formal financial systems before a disaster can be a key success factor after one, and corporations have a big opportunity to drive this change.

Put innovation at the center of humanitarian response

Innovating humanitarian response is an urgent priority and a theme likely to come out of the Istanbul summit. But this is not simply a question of drafting a request for proposal and procuring software. When innovation is required, you can't just write a cheque. Instead, we need corporations to bring their best technologies and expertise to the table as true partners to find new ways of handling humanitarian response.

We can revolutionize the way humanitarian agencies coordinate their work on the ground through tools like HelpNow, developed by the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Space in collaboration with the Humanitarian Council. And moving to a metrics-driven sector will require new ways of collecting and analyzing data in real-time, something corporations are well suited to develop. Bringing education to millions of refugee children in camps and overcrowded urban schools cries out for technological innovation, as does developing new health tools and approaches for the most vulnerable people in conflict zones including pregnant women and newborns.

None of this can happen without the kind of close working engagement between humanitarian agencies and corporations that agencies like the World Food Program and corporations like UPS have pioneered. This should become the norm.

We can say that the humanitarian sector needs urgently to reform, but it can't happen and won't become a truly results-driven, efficient ecosystem if corporations remain on the sidelines of the humanitarian community. In Istanbul, let's send a clear message that corporations need more than just a seat at the table for someone else's summit: this is their community too.

This is part of a series of articles linked to the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, including:

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