Find your sherpa: Bolster humanitarian crisis response

By Sally Stansfield, David Cogswell, Achal Patel 16 June 2016

Sherpas in Nepal. How can companies engage local partners to bolster humanitarian crisis response? Photo by: Denn Ukoloff / CC BY

As many companies look to deepen involvement in global crisis response, the challenge now falls to the business community to similarly embrace this lesson. Fortunately, companies are finding that calling upon their local partners — whether local affiliates or commercial trade partners — can strengthen their humanitarian efforts.

With more crises layering economic, political and social factors, as is currently occurring with the Syrian refugee crisis, local knowledge is only becoming more critical in addressing a region’s unique challenges. This prompts the question: How will your company find its sherpa?

Crisis response in context

On April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake ripped through central Nepal, devastating the capital of Kathmandu and killing over 7,000 people. Responding to the devastation alongside major international organizations such as the International Red Cross and Mercy Corps was a 31-year old Nepalese sherpa named Dawa Steven Sherpa. Having climbed Mt. Everest twice previously, Dawa Steven mobilized his local trekking company to provide critical support, ranging from bringing locals to safety to helping them find shelter to locating essential supplies. Dawa Steven and his team embodied a lesson long-embraced by the humanitarian community: local engagement is a precondition for an effective humanitarian response.

Many global companies can engage at the local level by looking within their own organizations. Subsidiaries and/or affiliates already operating in crisis-affected regions can offer powerful allies for more effective humanitarian response. Their geographic proximity to the crisis may influence these entities to act and provide a nuanced understanding of local needs compared to their parent company. Moreover, these collaborations can often be mobilized quickly as they engage those already on the ground and may require less bureaucratic “red tape” than establishing formal relationships with external partners.

During the Ebola outbreak, for example, international mining company ArcelorMittal empowered its office in Liberia to invest in training on disease prevention for its employees. While Ebola cases grew by the day, none of the office’s 4,000 employees contracted the virus. The Liberia office encouraged its personnel to spread the content of the training to their dependents and local communities, helping to amplify the effect of the initial investment.

Perhaps even more powerfully, a company can expand the scale of its local humanitarian engagement by activating its large network of external commercial partners. Bringing a product or service to market often requires a diverse assortment of local suppliers, distributors and contractors. These organizations possess specialized capabilities, last-mile access and regional expertise that, if called upon during a crisis, can improve the quality and speed of a company’s humanitarian response.

For example, as the Zika virus outbreak has spread in Latin America, The Coca-Cola Company and its bottling partners have tapped into more than 400,000 points of sale across Brazil to distribute official public health messaging related to the disease. Coca-Cola captured the value of its pre-existing relationships on the ground to raise awareness of preventative measures to combat the spread of the virus throughout the country.

A company can activate both sides of its value chain through local suppliers and distributors, depending on the needs of a specific crisis.

“When the chaos of a crisis occurs, who do people turn to? They go to the people they trust. In a developing country that might include the people they routinely buy household products from. Those shopkeepers can carry a lot of influence in the community. This creates a faster, more locally sensitive response that reduces the need for emergency responders to be brought in” reflects Rebecca Marmot, vice president of Global Partnerships for Unilever, during the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. Unilever, in partnership with the Humanitarian Leadership Academy, part of Save the Children, has prepared local vendors in the Philippines to be first responders.

At the other end of Unilever’s value chain, the company is investigating how it can engage its suppliers in Kenya in crisis preparedness. Encouraging smallholder farmers to use sustainable farming practices is one way that is particularly important to food security in crisis-prone regions.

Local affiliates and commercial partners can deepen the impact of a company’s humanitarian initiatives, improve resilience at the local level, and build capacity to manage future crises. However, these collaborations take time to come to fruition.

As your company explores these local engagement options, don’t forget the power of your most localized assets: your employees. With the right training and forethought, your own in-house talent can provide an immediate, grassroots mechanism for humanitarian crisis engagement. For example, Cisco has a corps of trained volunteers ready to deploy globally and enable critical communications when infrastructure is damaged.

By empowering and equipping employees to respond to a crisis, you may find that your business is basecamp to more sherpas than you ever thought possible. Imagine what that means for the culture of your company, and the impact your organization can make in a humanitarian crisis.

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 authors

Sally stansfield
Sally Stansfield

Sally Stansfield is a director in the Social Impact service line of Deloitte Consulting LLP, focusing on global health issues. She brings more than 30 years of expertise in health systems strengthening, and has extensive experience working with global health partners.


David cogswell
David Cogswell

David Cogswell is a senior consultant in Deloitte's federal strategy practice and a former Princeton in Asia fellow. David's work focuses on serving nonprofit organizations in health and education, as well as helping build partnerships across sectors to achieve greater social impact.


Achal patel
Achal Patel

Achal Patel is a consultant in the federal strategy practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP. He has a particular interest in the intersection of the private, public, and social sectors, with a strong belief that corporations have an opportunity to channel resources and people towards solving the most pressing societal issues of today while driving positive business outcomes.


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