Coming of age for humanitarians and the private sector

By Stephen O'Brien 05 July 2016

The Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget team distributes emergency items to Filipinos affected by Typhoon Bopha in Mindanao. Photo by: SCA / CC BY

With the scale of suffering fast outpacing the ability of the international community to adequately respond, there is a growing need for innovative partnerships with the private sector in not only emergency response, but also risk reduction, preparedness and longer-term recovery.

When representatives from over 400 private sector companies participated in the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May, ready to coordinate at a global scale, it demonstrated a solidifying of relations between private enterprise and the humanitarian sector. It also set in motion a series of initiatives that will intensify and widen our collaboration over years to come.

The importance of the private sector in humanitarian response cannot be understated. Businesses have extensive networks, deep contextual knowledge, and access to skilled staff and equipment, which make them uniquely well-placed to lead on response in certain scenarios.

Collaboration in practice

In Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake, international firms including UPS, TNT and Maersk significantly upped the speed and scale of response when they delivered relief supplies to affected people.

In 2013, after Typhoon Haiyan devastated much of central Philippines, the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation brought together private firms and nongovernmental organizations to rebuild schools, homes and hospitals, as well as providing boats for fishermen and help to revive small businesses that had been destroyed. When the country’s Department of Education needed an emergency feeding program, it turned to PDRF, which supplied food for 27,000 schoolchildren for one month.

When the deadly Ebola epidemic swept across West Africa in 2014, businesses formed the Ebola Private Sector Mobilization Group to donate funding, equipment and personnel to the response effort.

As private firms’ experience of disaster response deepens, their role has expanded beyond relief delivery to encompass needs assessments and long-term recovery efforts. In Nepal, local and regional businesses played an instrumental role in not only rebuilding houses, schools and shops but also giving loans to business-owners to get them back on their feet.  

Collective willingness

While collaboration between businesses and nonprofit humanitarian responders has grown significantly over the past decade, there is ample room to strengthen our alliances, and leaders across the spectrum showed a real readiness to do so at the World Humanitarian Summit.

There in Istanbul, businesses, governments, civil society and international organizations came together to launch the Connecting Business Initiative, which aims to create, support and strengthen national private sector networks in high-risk locations so that they can engage in disaster risk reduction, preparedness, emergency response and recovery, coordinating with each other and with nonprofit humanitarian responders at all levels.

The summit also saw the launch of the Global Humanitarian Lab, which is based on the MIT lab concept, and brings together social entrepreneurs, engineers, nongovernmental organizations, startups and others, to workshop, incubate, produce and accelerate new products and processes to improve humanitarian response.

Businesses proactively engaged in wider initiatives. For instance, the Global Business Coalition for Education pledged $100 million to the Education Cannot Wait fund, which aims to get 75 million crisis-affected children back into school. Several business entities — including MasterCard, the World Economic Forum and GSMA — signed onto initiatives to scale up digital cash transfers across regions; while others supported the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter, launched in 2015 to help mobile networks set up emergency response systems at the ready to connect people or share lifesaving information once crises hit.

The sheer variety and scale of these commitments are powerful evidence of how far we have come in our collective willingness to engage in stemming suffering the world over.

Getting the most out of these partnerships will involve setting common goals and closely monitoring to what degree they have been reached, as well as establishing open lines of communication — including demystifying the acronym-rich humanitarian language.

But ultimately, the test of our effectiveness can only be measured in the degree to which we improve the ability of vulnerable people caught up in crises to not only survive, but to thrive.

Following the World Humanitarian Summit, Devex — along with its partners Deloitte, Ericsson, United Nations Development Programme, and United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — have come together for #ShareHumanity. This six-week online conversation explores the role the private sector plays in humanitarian relief efforts, preparedness and response, both now and in the future.

Use #ShareHumanity and tag @devex to have your say.

About the author

Stephenobrein
Stephen O'Brien@UNReliefChief

Stephen O'Brien heads the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.


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