Business and humanitarian action: Overcoming the language barrier

A Disaster Response Team, made up of 10 volunteers from from the courier company DHL, arrives at Toussaint L’ouverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince within 48 hours of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti to help organize incoming aid cargo. DHL says
(Deutsche Post DHL/Flickr)

A cloud of mistrust hangs over relations between business and the humanitarian community, the result of decades of mutual suspicion. Aid workers stereotype the private sector as profiteering and unscrupulous; business people write off international agencies as bloated and inefficient.

Even where both sides sense they might have something to gain by working with each other, a series of studies by the Humanitarian Policy Group at London's Overseas Development Institute, the ODI, shows that all too often they have no idea how to approach each other, no forum where they can meet and very little common language.

The ODI's Steven Zyck, who worked on the project, says the private sector is in reality deeply involved in emergency humanitarian response. “Businesses are often among the first responders to any crisis, opening their stores, opening their warehouses, volunteering their trucks and equipment and machinery to clear roads and get supplies into affected areas. And in a world where agencies are increasingly relying on cash transfer programmes to reach disaster affected populations, simply helping to get markets in a far-flung community up and running again is a key part of the humanitarian enterprise.

“This isn't a fad,” he says. “In the future, the opportunities for engaging with businesses in humanitarian action are only going to increase. Many of the challenges that we are increasingly facing - as a result of climate change, as a result of pandemics or technological failures - are things where businesses have a real competitive advantage.”

For their country studies, the group looked for places with a flourishing private sector - Kenya, Indonesia, Jordan and Haiti. In Jordan and Indonesia they were also looking at the kind of middle income countries which would rather keep international agencies at arms' length and do as much as they can themselves. “We see that many countries are pursuing collaborations with the private sector, rather than traditional aid agencies,” said Zyck, “because they want to ensure that the response to the crisis actually helps them further their pursuit of economic growth and development... And some countries are fed up with the way they are portrayed at times by traditional aid agencies in their fund-raising pitches and drives - as a devastated country, a shambles, unsuited for foreign direct investment - and this is actually damaging their long-term growth.”

As they worked, the researchers found examples of innovative and useful partnerships, but also many missed opportunities. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, telecom companies shared their data with humanitarian agencies, helping them track the movement of people. They helped agencies get information to the public through SMS messaging, enabling them to target people in a particular area by directing messages through particular masts.

But a bit of joint forward planning could have avoided some of the problems. Digicel's donation of free airtime to its customers backfired when the resulting spike in traffic clogged the network. And the companies were deluged by uncoordinated requests from NGOs to send out SMS messages. Some were delayed, or sent in duplicate, and customers began to regard them as a nuisance. Eventually the companies appointed dedicated members of staff to sort them out, and things got better.

International companies also helped. A consortium of logistics companies (TNT, UPS and Agility) sent an expert team to Haiti to manage warehouses and clear bottlenecks in the supply chain. The appliance-maker, Whirlpool, was also keen to help. Haiti was not in need of washing machines, but they could provide warehouse space which was used to assemble shelter kits.

Few forums for ongoing consultations

The earthquake in Haiti was a sudden, devastating emergency. Refugee crises - like the situation in Jordan - are inevitably slower to build up and longer in duration. Here many agencies are partnering with banks and businesses to run voucher or cash transfer schemes which allow refugees to buy on the local market, benefiting the private sector. But there is no forum for ongoing consultation. If there had been, suppliers might not have been caught off-guard by the sudden demand for tens of thousands of heaters for winterization programmes; they could have got in stocks and prices would have been lower.

Jordan has private education and health care providers whose facilities are much less busy than state schools and clinics. The report suggests that partnership with these could supply some refugee needs without overstraining Jordan's own education and health systems. But who should approach whom? And where would this be discussed? One of the issues raised by the research is what form ongoing consultations should take, and who should chair them. Should it be coordinated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which runs the NGO cluster system? Or the local Chamber of Commerce? Or indeed the government?

It is also important who attends. At the moment agencies usually send their fundraisers to talk to the private sector; businesses delegate this sort of thing to their public affairs and PR departments. Neither are the right people to create innovative partnerships.

Peepoople is a small company which has developed an innovative sanitation system which can be used in emergency situations. Its sales director, Asa Angelino, has occasionally been invited to water, sanitation and hygiene cluster meetings but would welcome longer-term involvement in strategy discussions. She is relatively well connected with the world of NGOs, but she told IRIN that she still finds dealing with the humanitarian sector extremely difficult.

“When working with the UN, in particular, procurement processes are very heavy. And on top of everything they require three years of profit, and we can't show that. NGOs ask for references, especially with an innovation like ours, which is a good thing. But then at the same time we are not invited to participate in independent evaluations, and when evaluations are done, it's not possible to share them with others. NGOs have donors putting requirements on them on how products should be bought and reporting done - so many things we don't understand... And also to apply for funding from some of the large organizations like USAID, it's very, very complicated for us - we don't even have the vocabulary to do so.”

On the other side of the great divide, NGO workers like Julian Srodecki of World Vision are still very wary about the connections and the motivation of some of the local businesses he has some across. “I am wondering what the implications are of a bigger role for business when, by nature, often you have to have good political affiliations to own a business in some of the contexts where we work. What does that mean for our traditional values of neutrality, impartiality, etc?”

Oxfam’s experience

One of the agencies which has gone the furthest in formulating its policy for partnering with the private sector is Oxfam. Sandrine Laroche, who worked on their policy study of this, told IRIN: “If we want to set up a specific partnership with the private sector, we have to do an ethical check, and have special authorization from headquarters and our regional centre. We need to know that the company is in line with our human rights policy, that it is not involved with the manufacture of weapons, cigarettes or alcohol or in any other sectors where Oxfam is running campaigns.”

Laroche is now working in Haiti, where she is currently involved in a project with the Unibank Foundation. Oxfam hopes to use its financial structures to make cash transfers to beneficiaries smoother. But she is clear that there are some parts of the process where it is not appropriate for the bank to be involved. “Even if we can find new tools,” she says, “it would be hard, for instance, to ask a private company to do the targeting of beneficiaries.”

She sees the potential benefits in these partnerships, but concedes that not all her colleagues are enthusiastic. “There is suspicion, even inside Oxfam,” she said. “The problem is, for instance, how you can work with service providers to enforce good procurement policies. And how do you work with profit-making organizations, and still make improvements in people's lives?”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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