Leaders from the political and business world gathered in Davos, Switzerland last week for the annual World Economic Forum, where the war in Ukraine dominated many panels and discussions.
Many Western businesses have taken the unusually strong stance of closing their operations in Russia. But companies are also helping the humanitarian response: More than $1.4 billion has been donated in cash by the private sector, according to a UN tracker. Many businesses are also providing other forms of support to Ukrainians – from logistics to job placements.
In this special episode of our Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast, host Heba Aly speaks to Valerie Beaulieu, chief marketing officer of Adecco. Not long after the Russian invasion into Ukraine in late February, the Fortune 500 company created a new platform to help refugees find employment. “There was an urgency to get them back to work as soon as we can,” Beaulieu explains.
These unprecedented levels of corporate engagement also mean more money is being donated to humanitarian operations, but how do you keep it all flowing smoothly?
The Connecting Business Initiative – a joint project by the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA; and the United Nations Development Programme – tracks all private sector donations towards Ukraine.
“Our team has tracked just under $1.5 billion of cash and in-kind contributions from businesses around the world. And we think the true number is probably closer to $2 billion or more,” Kareem Elbayer, coordinator of the initiative, tells the podcast.
Host Heba Aly explores with both guests whether this new level of engagement over Ukraine represents a game-changing moment for the private sector. Is it likely to be replicated for future conflicts or crises, or is Ukraine more of a one-off?
Guests: Valerie Beaulieu, Adecco; Kareem Elbayar, Connecting Business Initiative.
Look out in early September for new episodes of Rethinking Humanitarianism. To revisit previous episodes – or to stay tuned about our upcoming podcasts – subscribe on Spotify, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or YouTube, or search “The New Humanitarian” in your favourite podcast app.
- WEF Panel: Integrating Refugees into Labour Markets
- Adecco Jobs for Ukraine platform
- Connecting Business Initiative: Ukraine private sector tracker
- The Good Lobby
- WEF paper: Humanitarian Investing
- Whose suffering counts? A discussion looking at crisis coverage beyond Ukraine
- Director’s Dispatch: Aid and the elite
Is Ukraine a game-changer for aid and the private sector? RH Davos Special
Audioclip, Ursula von der Leyen, May 2022 :
The playbook of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine comes straight out of another century.
Political and business leaders from around the world gathered at the Swiss ski resort of Davos last week for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. you can guess what was top of the agenda: Ukraine.
Audioclip, George Soros, May 2022:
The invasion may have been the beginning of the Third World War and our civilisation may not survive it.
The discussions weren’t only focused on geopolitics. But also on the private sector’s response to Russia’s invasion. Here’s Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella on how his company supported the Ukrainian government:
Audioclip, Satya Nadella, May 2022: 1250 to 1316
Because of our cyber capabilities, because of the trillions of signals we see – long before, quite frankly, the attack started – the Russian activity on critical Ukrainian infrastructure. And we were able to work then with the Ukrainian government to really evacuate them, effectively, into our cloud and protect them.
In my experience attending this elite and traditionally-business focused meeting in Davos, I have seen more and more humanitarian issues on the agenda in recent years. But Ukraine has been a game-changer. The private sector’s engagement has been larger in scope, deeper in commitment, and more focussed on the long-term.
But will it last after Ukraine? Is this a new dawn for private sector support for humanitarian needs, or just a one-off?
I’m Heba Aly. And this is a special Davos edition of the Rethinking Humanitarianism podcast.
The crisis in Ukraine has prompted unprecedented levels of private sector involvement. According to one UN tracker, companies have donated more than 1.4 billion dollars, since the start of Russia’s invasion in late February.
It's not only money. You heard how Microsoft helped digitise the Ukrainian government. We’ve also seen companies – from McDonalds to Prada, from Starbucks to Netflix – stop their operations or close down their stores in Russia in protest. In March, a non-profit group called The Good Lobby even launched an index to track businesses’ responses to the crisis – naming and shaming those brands that didn’t pull out of Russia. That kind of activism is something we just haven't seen in other conflicts.
So today we’re diving into that massive private sector response to Ukraine, and asking whether this means companies will continue responding at this scale to other crises in the future.
Later, we’ll hear from a humanitarian who has been working to attract private sector engagement in crises for years.
But first, I’d like to welcome Valerie Beaulieu to the podcast. Valerie is the Chief Sales & Marketing Officer at Adecco, a Fortune 500 company that provides HR solutions to its clients. Adecco has also been active in training refugees and facilitating their job placement with employers in Europe, in the United States, and in Latin America.
Valerie was one of the speakers at a conversation I moderated in Davos on how to integrate refugees into the labour market, and she’s joining me now from Madrid. Valerie thanks for being with us.
Thank you for having me.
The Adecco group is the second largest human resources company in the world. And you have been working to help refugees get jobs well before the Ukrainian crisis. Can you tell us a little bit about what that involvement has looked like?
We have a decade’s long engagement towards integrating refugees. We believe first it’s pertained to our core value as a company to make the future work for everyone. We bring dignity back to people and to our refugees to give them a livelihood so that they can integrate quickly in their new home country. So this integration has taken multiple forms over the years, unfortunately, with the Syrian crisis, Iraq crisis, Afghanistan crisis, with tens of thousands of refugees that we were able to integrate mostly in Europe in these later cases.
And how has that differed from what you’ve done in the case of Ukraine?
I think in the case of Ukraine it’s the speed of reaction that was very different. So we don’t have operations in Ukraine and Russia. So the first thing we’ve done is talk to our own employees of Ukrainian origins to see how we could help their families, to start with. And we’ve partnered with NGOs to make sure that we could help with repatriation of Ukrainians in need into safer areas and a lot in Europe again, so Poland, Moldova, etc., this was our first move. And we did that in the days, literally, in the days following the first date of the invasion. But what we did on top of that, is that realising that when we were talking to the refugees who are coming up in Poland, they were telling us, ‘Hey, we still have rent to pay, we still have energy bills to pay, we still have to send money back home.’ And there was an urgency to get them back to work as soon as we can. The speed of reaction was making sure that we use our know-how to get them in contact with jobs. And so we created that platform, Jobs for Ukraine, again in a matter of days, I think, early March, the platform was live. And this is how it all started. And the speed was really the difference.
And tell us about what impact that platform has had.
Well, this platform, first and foremost, was for us a way to talk to the NGOs so that in turn, they can get close to the refugees to see how they could put their CV and really look at the skills they could put forth. And on the other end of the spectrum, we were talking to our own clients to propose [to] them to participate and offer jobs through the platform. And the response has been amazing. In, again, a matter of weeks, we were able to get over 1,500 private companies, pledging jobs, jobs where they were in need of skills that were available for the refugees. That was an amazing impact that we got immediately. We had over 6,000 refugees that we were able to train through the platform with partnership that we also had through some skilling partners as well.
And how many of them were actually able to get jobs?
In the first few months, just a thousand. But we are very hopeful that the 6,000 that we have in training today are on a good path to get the job in weeks.
So walk me through what drives that engagement for your company? What does Adecco get out of engaging with refugees in this way?
Money wise, nothing. This is all pro bono. For us, it’s important to stand for our values. And we’ve talked a lot, during the pandemic, of this expectation for meaning and purpose from our employees. And there's been a very big push internally so that we would take a stance, and I would say it's not only our employees, but it's also our clients. What are you doing? What do you stand for? And also our shareholders. So it's amazing to see how this has changed in the past years where you could get away with some lip service of ‘hey, I feel for what's happening with Syria, Iraq’. Though we were always involved. But I think there's been a big change in the recent years on the back of the pandemic, with this expectation of meaning and purpose has become something that is very prevalent in judging your engagement towards the company. So our employees were the first advocates.
I'm surprised, though, to hear that the shareholders even were pushing for this because it comes at a cost to profit, doesn’t it?
We talked a lot about ESG. So the sustainability commitment, there is the ‘s’ in the middle. And the social engagement is very important. What we stand for in terms of value to be true and authentic to our mission is paramount to the shareholders who are looking to see: Are we authentic in what we stand for, or are we just again, paying lip service from a capitalist perspective? And so, I think this is why it’s really all the stakeholders in the company, in the private sector, who’re putting pressure for all of us to stand for what we believe.
In one of the private meetings that I attended in Davos. Somebody said, yes, you know, everyone is ticking the boxes on ESG – so environmental, social, and governance criteria – but nothing is happening at scale. To what extent is this a box ticking exercise?
Well, for Ukraine, I think what happened was a real engagement. I personally did call down to clients to propose to them to participate. Actually, some clients were already reaching out to say, ‘hey, how can I offer a job?’ What was amazing is that in just a couple of weeks, we got these 1,500 customers committing to jobs. And I think this is a very big change from just ticking the box. It’s not just to look good, it's actually to welcome and offer these roles to refugees and to people in need. So I think there is a difference from where people were in the past, again, with this lip-service or tick the box as you're saying, to really wanting to be committed. Because they themselves get the scrutiny of their shareholders, of their clients, of their employees. So it's a virtuous circle of influence and pressure that is exercised on the private sector, I think.
Let me just share with you another comment that I heard in Davos from a top humanitarian leader who said, ‘We are not going to solve these problems of destabilisation, poverty, hunger, through charity, philanthropy, the United Nations.’ And he was a UN official, he said to the private sector, ‘You can't just do a feel good project here. And there, you guys have to step up and take more risks and be willing to make less profit if we’re going to solve these global challenges.’ So I'm hearing from you that at least in the case of Ukraine, there has been a meaningful engagement. But it seems we're still quite far from a place in which the private sector is really at scale working on these challenges in a partnership kind of model. Would you say that's accurate?
I wouldn't say that we are there, it's probably a race with no finish line. And it's certainly not something where we believe that the private sector has all the answers. I am firmly convinced that this has to be multi-party engagement, because we are not an NGO, and we don’t have this close contact with the refugees to understand what is the utmost need that they have. And so for that, we have to rely on the intermediation that NGO would do. So that we don't invent ourselves, just feel good, by doing something that is absolutely not needed. So for me, on the one hand, it's very important that we know our place, we know what we can do. And it has to be core to our business to where we are good at. And we're super happy to do that pro bono. But we also have to rely on the people who know what is needed, and don't invent that. So that's super important. And at the other end of the spectrum, I would say, we also need the institution to play their part. Because there are also a number of barriers to integrate refugees in the workforce. And one of the first and foremost is administrative or regulatory, to allow the refugees to work they need to have the right paperwork to start with. Sometimes even identity, because how many came with no passport. In the case of Ukraine, 85% were women in the first flow of refugees. It was for them the first time they were travelling outside of Ukraine. So, I believe this will not be solved only by the private sector, it will have to be a multi-party engagement to make that happen.
You've started touching there on some of the barriers. I heard a lot of them at Davos in terms of what's holding the private sector back. But where you have seen now in Ukraine, a willingness to try to tackle some of those barriers, do you think that that will last. I’d be curious to see how the engagement of companies, in response to your call for jobs for refugees was different in the case of Ukraine compared to some of your earlier efforts, and what that says about the future, to your mind.
The main difference between the past and what we saw with Ukraine, it was really the speed. You’ve read the headlines just like everyone else, like we are living in a world of talent scarcity. So we also need to make sure that we leverage all the skills we can get. And refugees, just like everyone else, are coming with their very specific set of skills and qualification in their own rights. And so we also need to make sure that this doesn’t go to waste. And we also together create value out of their skills. So I think there is also, I would say, a win-win situation, that by providing decent livelihood opportunities to refugees, we’re also solving a time scarcity problem that is not going to go away in our Western societies.
But is this a case of Ukraine opening up the private sector’s eyes to that opportunity? Or is this a case of, as we’ve seen in terms of media attention, in terms of policy making, in terms of funding, that there has been much more given to Ukraine than to other crises, for reasons of geopolitics, for reasons of racism. And so that this is a specific response that will not continue when the crisis is not based in Europe, is not linked to people who are blond haired and blue eyed?
I don't have a crystal ball. So I cannot predict the future. But I have good hope that people realise that this talent scarcity problem is a problem that is not going to go away. And we need to make sure that we give a chance and reopen the opportunity to everybody who comes ready to work. And that gives me a lot of hope to the fact that we need to be much more open-minded. And if I want to be very cynical, including in the private sector, because we can’t let those skills go to waste. So I'm very hopeful that this is a commitment that will stay. And when we see again, how fast the EU for example, has reacted to levy all the administrative burden, for example, that’s also very encouraging, because the institution will also give the tone of how fast we can integrate refugees. And by doing this, I think the EU gave the tone of how at least European companies want to stand for.
But again, they did that in the case of Ukraine, they haven’t done that with other refugees.
I was giving you an example with Syrian refugees. I think in Germany at the height of the crisis we integrated up to 10,000 just in Germany, 3,000 in France. Well, I don't have all the numbers. It’s illegal to track refugees. It’s not a status that you track. But we know it’s by thousands that we integrated them. Because the reality is, first, we believe that we want to make the future work for everyone. We believe that everyone is entitled to a decent livelihood. And we are also super committed to give them the right skills so that they can work in our companies in Europe. And that’s the fastest way to integrate refugees in their new home countries as well. We know that. So not only is it the good thing to do, but it's also good for the economy. And I think companies are realising that with the point that I was making earlier that seeking of meaning, the seeking of purpose, that is something new and where really your employees are holding you accountable. And are you really true to the purpose you say you have? It’s different.
Valerie, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast
Thank you very much.
So Adecco is not alone, I spoke to a number of corporates in Davos, from Microsoft to Salesforce to IKEA, and all of them had been involved in humanitarian response for a while, but had stepped up their support in the face of the crisis in Ukraine. So what should we make of this unprecedented level of private sector engagement? Kareem Elbayar is the program coordinator for the Connecting Business Initiative, a joint project by the UN Development Programme and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to engage the private sector in humanitarian response and recovery. He joins me from Geneva. Hi, Kareem.
Hello Heba, it’s nice to be with you today.
Great to have you. So you have been tracking donations from the private sector towards Ukraine. Is it true that we are seeing a whole new level of engagement in the wake of this crisis?
Absolutely. We have seen businesses getting involved in humanitarian response and recovery for a number of years. But I think what's happening here with the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is truly unprecedented. Our team has tracked just under one and a half billion dollars of cash and in kind contributions from businesses around the world. And we think the true number is probably closer to two billion or more. We’re going to continue to update our tracker as we move forward in the coming weeks and months.
Is all of that pure cash, is it in kind donations? What’s the kind of nature of the engagement beyond the money if there is any?
There's been a huge outpouring of support. Cash contributions from the companies themselves, from the foundations that are associated with the companies, from their employees – very often matched with employee giving programmes. But we’ve also seen and I think we’ve seen for some time, but it's really become very clear here in Ukraine as well, a very large component of in-kind giving. We see companies that are specialised in certain fields, for example, logistics or construction, getting involved in lending their expertise, building housing and shelter, actually moving goods for the United Nations and other international organisations. We also see a great deal of substantive involvement in partnerships. So you have companies that have certain specialities, expertise, in one or another area, actually getting involved directly in the humanitarian response, directly in recovery. It's really been wonderful to see. There's just a wide range of ways that companies are getting involved. And some of it is difficult honestly, to attach a cash value to, but we've been trying to do that in order to help to track what is happening and sort of shine a light on the generosity of the private sector when it comes to this response.
And that kind of engagement that goes beyond just cash donations. That’s new?
I would say it's been ongoing for some time now. But we're really seeing an acceleration of that here in Ukraine. And, again, we're seeing an acceleration of a number of trends we've seen with regard to businesses being involved in humanitarian response, in disaster preparation. And of course, in recovery. We see that all in spades in Ukraine. So I wouldn't say it's new so much as just a trend that's accelerated really dramatically here in Ukraine.
And why is that? Why do you think there has been such an acceleration?
There’s a lot of reasons that we could explore. Our previous speaker mentioned that employees themselves have been demanding that companies get involved in the humanitarian response. I’ve heard that from a number of the companies that we’ve spoken to that they have demands from their employees, they have demands from their shareholders, and they have demands from their customers. And I think that speaks to this particular crisis, striking a nerve among everyone really around the world. So that’s a huge part of it. But I do think there’s also a recognition among businesses of all sizes, that they play a critical role in supporting humanitarian response. Businesses are really often among the first responders in any emergency, we’ve been seeing that for some time, now. They are on the front lines. They provide funds that provide good services and expertise. And I think there’s an understanding there, that in an increasingly complex world, it makes good business sense to be involved, it makes good business sense to support your suppliers, to support your employees, and ultimately, to ensure that societies and communities around the world in which you’re operating are stable and healthy and secure.
And yet, there still is a fair bit of, I don't know if you'd consider mistrust to be too strong a word, but certainly something getting in the way of this kind of partnership at scale that somehow has been unlocked in the case of Ukraine. But that in other crises – having attended Davos many years in a row – I kind of hear the same conversations taking place over and over. And it hadn't felt like there had been much progress in the broader conversation. In terms of how these two worlds interact with one another. CBI, the Connecting Business Initiative, was launched more than five years ago, are you seeing an evolution in terms of how both businesses are thinking about this, but also how the humanitarian sector is thinking about this?
I do think that businesses are taking a more sophisticated approach. And if you look back a few years ago, it would have been mostly about corporate social responsibility. It would have been about sort of demonstrating, for publicity or other purposes, that you are a good corporate citizen. And now what we're seeing is that businesses themselves are sort of looking at things and saying, ‘well, this makes good business sense for us to get involved.’ It's not just about demonstrating that we’re good corporate citizens, it's also about securing our own operations and securing our customers, suppliers, and others.
Conversely, I think the same kind of evolution is happening within the UN system. If we’re being perfectly honest, for a long time, the UN system, the humanitarian system, was not really geared or oriented toward engagement with businesses in the private sector. I think that started to evolve. But the way it evolved initially was to look at businesses as a source of funds, as a sort of piggy bank in a way that hasn’t been accessed before. Now, of course, the UN system, international organisations, humanitarian organisations, we are going to continue to ask for funding and support from the private sector and from the business community. But I think we too need to evolve and have a much more sophisticated approach than that. It’s not enough to just ask for cash. The donations are of importance, yes, but so too, is the in-kind support. And so too, are the real partnerships that we need for risk reduction, disaster management, and recovery. That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to solve these extremely complex problems that we’re dealing with.
And, as you know Heba, the humanitarian outlook has just become bleaker and bleaker with each passing year. The needs are growing, the complexity of these crises is growing. I think with climate change, we're going to see a lot more of this – extreme weather events and extremely impactful crises all around the world. No one actor is going to be able to handle this. The UN system is not equipped to handle this. Governments alone are not equipped to handle this. I think there has to be a recognition that in order to address the challenges of the future, all stakeholders in a society need to work together.
I think we're on our way. And we've seen an improvement. Of course, with Ukraine, we've seen, as we said, an unprecedented engagement of the business community. But I think we could have done better. And I think that we could have made it easier to partner, I think there are still a lot of things that we can be doing on the side of the humanitarian system to simplify and streamline engagement with the private sector.
We heard Valerie talking about what the government can do or the public sector can do and making it easier for the private sector. But as you're pointing out, there's also a role for humanitarians and making it easier for the private sector. And what you’ve just said, really echoed what I heard in Davos, too, with the head of one corporate foundation, who said ‘I don't see as much engagement with the private sector as I hear about talk of engaging with the private sector.’ And most of that talk, by the aid agencies he means is: How can we get a check, right? And for him, and I think what I’m hearing from you, is that's a huge lost opportunity, especially at a time when the humanitarian response sector has such a huge financing gap that presumably the corporate sector could fill. So what does the humanitarian sector need to change to be able to better facilitate that private sector engagement?
Well, I don’t want to get too in the weeds. But the way that the humanitarian system is set up right now really doesn’t facilitate that kind of engagement with businesses. It certainly doesn’t facilitate the long term relationships that are needed for us to have a real, consistent, and comprehensive approach to disaster risk reduction. Very often with some of these emergencies, the humanitarian system will mobilise very quickly to come into a crisis, and then it will demobilise and kind of come out of a country. And I think that kind of approach needs to change.
Certainly, the crises that we’re dealing with around the world today are no longer sudden onset emergencies. It’s not always the earthquakes and the floods. And even when it is a flood, or a hurricane, very often we can start to predict these things, we can see these things coming. What’s needed is long term engagement, what’s needed is some type of institutional memory. And certainly at the part of the UN system – the agencies, funds, and programmes, we need to think about how our private sector engagement offices are set up. We need to think about how we can maintain and streamline these relationships. We need to think about in the case of the UN for example, every agency, fund and program has a different set of due diligence requirements. A different set of partnership rules, a different partnership office, a different focal point. And those focal points tend to change.
Also, a number of our institutions are quite large. And so if you may be talking to a humanitarian organisation in Syria, that same organisation may have people in Yemen or Afghanistan or Somalia or the Congo. And we don’t really connect those dots. But when we’re talking to companies, and certainly those multinationals with operations around the world, it's important to do so. It’s important to ensure that we have a single focal point.
So as we said, I do think there’s quite a bit we can be doing to make this a little bit easier. I think there's more education that needs to be done on the side of the humanitarian sector, in terms of how businesses think, how they operate, how they want to be engaged with. And, again, the same type of process of learning and partnership, ‘learning by doing’ is happening on the side of the private sector. And I think, from my part, I’ve been extremely happy really to see that a number of companies around the world and certainly the larger companies have started to say, we need to have a formal office for engagement in humanitarian emergencies, we need to think about long term partnerships. Not just writing a check and trumpeting that check and disappearing, but really thinking about: How can we improve your operations? How can we streamline your logistics? How can we support your construction? How can we support distribution of goods and distribution of services? And so that’s all very inspiring. And I hope it's something that we’ll continue to see not just in Ukraine, but in the many, many other humanitarian crises all around the world.
And yet, there are so many business leaders and companies at Davos that are ready to contribute to the response in Ukraine and, at least UNHCR, I know and I believe also OCHA, were not present to capitalise on that interest. Why do you think that is?
Well, I'm not sure that I can speak really to why our leadership didn’t attend that specific event. But I can say that we are trying to engage. And I know really, for a fact on the part of UNHCR specifically and OCHA as well as a number of other agencies, funds, and programmes that we are trying to engage with businesses all around the world. And we are trying to think about approaching this in a more consistent and comprehensive manner than we have done in the past.
This particular event, this particular conference, I mean, I think there were some scheduling issues, really. And there's a lot going on in the world right now. So it can also be difficult to bring our senior leadership to an event like that, and to stay at an event like that for a long time. But I think whenever it's possible, we ought to be there, we ought to be in the room, and we ought to be encouraging the private sector to really be a true partner. That's a really important point. It's not just the check that we're asking for, it’s the true partnership, that is more sustainable, and that will provide better results for communities that are affected around the world.
I think that is the right hypothesis that UNHCR in particular has too much to do at the moment. But I asked the question, because there is also a critique that you’ll likely be well familiar with that it is folly to believe that the same corporate capitalism that has caused a lot of these problems, in many people’s eyes, will be the answer to those problems or will bring the solution. I mean, it’s a running critique of Davos in general, but also of civil society, NGO, UN presence at Davos, that you shouldn’t be turning to these people for the answer. How do you respond to that kind of a critique?
I think I am sympathetic to that critique myself, honestly. I think about that quite a bit. And there’s a lot that you can say in terms of sort of critiquing the humanitarian system as it's developed over the last 40 or 50 years, so I’m sympathetic to that criticism. But at the same time, I think it’s, at least for me, I don’t want to speak for the institution as a whole, I believe that there won't be a solution to these problems unless we have the stakeholders at the table. That we all have to work together. And that includes governments, includes civil society, includes NGOs. It includes the UN and the international humanitarian and development systems. There do need to be some serious changes. There's no question about that. And I don't know that it serves us to say, no, let's exclude these people from the conversation.
You’ve said that Ukraine really struck a nerve. And that’s why we saw such engagement. There are many other crises, as we have reported at length that don’t strike the same nerve and from Yemen to the Sahel, to the Central African Republic, people are suffering just as much, and we don’t see the same level of enthusiasm. So what are your thoughts on whether this will turn out to be a true turning point, or whether the private sector’s engagement on this particular crisis is rather unique, and for a specific set of circumstances that may not be replicated?
This is a unique crisis, and it has been uniquely covered in the media, the attention of the world, is very much being directed at Ukraine. And I hope that's sustained attention. I mean, we've been around long enough to see that sometimes that kind of attention can drop off very quickly. I would say that rather than sort of compare Ukraine to some of these underfunded crises around the world, I am looking to learn lessons from the Ukraine crisis. I’m looking to try and understand why it is that customers, shareholders, companies, have all felt an obligation to respond in Ukraine. And I’m hoping that we as a humanitarian system can take some of those lessons learned and try to sustain the attention of the world on the underfunded crises, the forgotten crises, as you mentioned, all around the world. There’s too many for me to list here. I think in fairness, we have seen that businesses around the world, especially small and medium enterprises, who don’t always get this kind of press, do in fact engage in humanitarian response and recovery. There is engagement between the private sector and humanitarians everywhere in the world. There’s no question about that. And I can point to individual stories from all of the countries that you mentioned, and many more. Nonetheless, the level of sustained engagement in Ukraine is something qualitatively different. I don’t want to sort of criticise that, I think what’s important instead is for us to say, that’s wonderful. We encourage that we welcome that engagement of the global business community in Ukraine. And I hope that we can see that same level of generosity for the many, many millions of other people around the world who are suffering.
Have you learned those lessons already? Can you share some with us?
The power of individual employees. I think that when individual employees in businesses see that there is real suffering, that they respond. And the media attention and coverage that has been allocated toward Ukraine is just not available, it’s just not allocated for a number of crises around the world. So I’m not necessarily prepared to criticise people for their generosity in a given context, I think we need to do a better job of bringing to the attention of the world some of the other forgotten crises around the world. And I think that that may, in fact, translate into more sustained engagement.
I also think that we as a humanitarian system, need to think about the relationships that have been developed in responding to Ukraine. We need to think about the relationships that have been developed with this unprecedented outpouring of generosity. And try and leverage those relationships to engage in a substantive manner in many of the other countries around the world. And I can say that we at least plan to do that. I am sure that OCHA is going to be engaging with these companies that have been very generous in providing good services, expertise, time, and money. And we’re going to ask them how we can engage together in other countries around the world. And I am optimistic that we'll see some expansion of these types of partnerships, and some deepening of these types of partnerships going into the future.
I think you're right on the media attention, and thank you for that plug for the importance of organisations like ours who are trying very hard to ensure that all crises get that kind of attention. But I think there’s also another dynamic to this, which is, in this case, you had not only victims that were much more relatable to the West from which most of these companies originate. Although I should say I think the local private sector or regional private sector as a whole other part of the story that is much less talked about. But also that the conflict was considered by many to be much more clear cut, right? Less political. It’s obvious that there's one aggressor and a victim. And so standing on the right side of history is very clear. And for many other conflicts, that isn’t the case. And they are, at least seem to be whether that's true or not, a messy, you know, civil conflict where you don't really know whose fault it is, who's the real victim, and so to stand by the victim is much more complicated. And in this response to Ukraine, I think that was a big part of it, right? Taking sides in a way, standing by what's right. So how do you overcome that barrier moving forward, where the risk, in a sense, for the private sector to engage on some of these other crises is much higher.
On a personal level, I began my career in the UN system in the Middle East, and I know that things are quite a bit murkier, there. It’s more difficult to sort of relate to situations there for people in the West. That's true. But again, I would say, let's go back to first principles here of neutrality, impartiality, humanity. Let’s focus on the fact that the victims of these crises all around the world are the same, they are individuals who deserve to live in dignity and in peace and to have lives and futures. I think that message perhaps has gotten muddled in the past.
Maybe more practically, the UN and the humanitarian system, need to kind of create a sort of safe harbour for companies and to do a better job of explaining or simplifying complex crises. And also showing how assistance can be provided to civilians who are in need, even in the most complex environments. And perhaps that's on us. I think there's quite a bit we can be learning from the way that this crisis has played out in the mass media. And I think we can do a better job of presenting a narrative that individuals around the world can relate to. And a narrative that companies can feel that it is comfortable for them to engage in that they won’t sort of step over a red line, and they won't make a mistake. And that may be something that we as a humanitarian system need to do a better job of, if we want to see further engagement by the private sector and others.
Well, you’ve answered my typically last question, which is what are some practical steps that organisations that want to head in this direction can take, so thank you for that. And for that honest kind of self-reflection on where the humanitarian sector can also do better. It's been great to have you on the podcast.
Thank you, Heba. It’s a real pleasure. Thank you very much.
We’ll link to the tracker that Kareem mentioned – where you can see how much individual companies have donated to Ukraine so far, which agencies are receiving these donations – in the show notes on our website: thenewhumanitarian.org/podcast.
That’s it for this special Davos edition of Rethinking Humanitarianism. For those of you wondering why a non-profit media outlet like ours was present in Davos in the first place – and I know there are some of you out there because we did get questions about when I first started attending Davos about exactly that – I wrote some reflections on the topic a few years ago, because I myself have been grappling with whether it makes sense to attend. The piece is called “Aid and the elite”, and you’ll find it in the shownotes. And hopefully it will help answer some of those questions.
To give us feedback on this episode or any of our podcasts, send us an email: [email protected]. Or, visit thenewhumanitarian.org/podcast where you can find a form to share your thoughts.
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This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.
This episode was produced and edited by Marthe van der Wolf.
And I’m your host Heba Aly.
Now before we go: The New Humanitarian recently hosted an online conversation on why the crisis in Ukraine is receiving so much more attention than other crises in the world – and what that says about whose suffering counts. You’ll find a full recording of the event on this podcast feed, but today we’ll leave you with some thoughts from one of the panellists, Mustafa Alio, who considers what’s happening to be double standards in the treatment of refugees. Mustafa is a Syrian refugee, living in Canada and he is the Managing Director of a group that advocates for refugees to have a voice in decisions that affect them called R-SEAT.
What's happening is the right thing for Ukrainians, what’s happening for other refugees is the wrong thing. I think the Syrian, in particular, because witnessing a country and people suffering the same oppressor. Somehow it was acceptable what Russia was doing in Syria. And now all of a sudden, they’re the criminals of the world. So absolutely it is good that now there is a good attention to refugees and Ukrainian refugees and good attention to the wars that Russia is committed in that part of the world. But at the same time, it is sad that our voice and our stories were not as equal in that sense, in the eyes of the international community, or even media.
Right now, we’re working with contributors on the ground in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to tell the stories of people enduring and responding to a rapidly evolving humanitarian crisis.
We’re documenting the threats to humanitarian response in the country and providing a platform for those bearing the brunt of the invasion. Our goal is to bring you the truth at a time when disinformation is rampant.
But while much of the world’s focus may be on Ukraine, we are continuing our reporting on myriad other humanitarian disasters – from Haiti to the Sahel to Afghanistan to Myanmar. We’ve been covering humanitarian crises for more than 25 years, and our journalism has always been free, accessible for all, and – most importantly – balanced.
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