Saving more lives with business on board

Sabina KC lives in Dolakha District, Nepal, and her family received a solar light as part of Concern Worldwide’s earthquake response. Photo by: Alastair Taylor / Concern Worldwide

When a Concern Worldwide emergency response worker bumped into Jim Fraser of Flexiway Solar Solutions in 2011 and shared her vision of an ideal emergency light, Jim got to work on a prototype. Soon afterward, Concern staff set about testing the model: They threw the lights on the ground to check for durability and hung them outside to test their resilience to rain; and they scratched an early design — a round, orange light — because it looked too much like a landmine.

Finally, after much toing and froing, the square white Solar Muscle — a portable and water resistant solar-powered light — was born. We can stack 90,000 into a container, compared to 70,000 of the round version. They can be clipped together to form a light strip.

Today, this handheld LED light is being used in emergency and development settings by organizations around the world. So far, Concern Worldwide has distributed 33,000 in six countries to provide light to families off the grid, and as part of our relief kits handed out after Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and last year’s earthquakes in Nepal.

Win-win: A collaboration success story

What have we gained from partnering with Flexiway?

We’ve got the lights we desperately needed — and at a reduced price, given our key role in research and development, led by our ICT for development team, ICT4D. And thanks to Concern’s feedback, on-the-ground experience and access to far-flung rural settings, Flexiway has developed a superior and much-needed product.

In 2014, the company was acquired by NRS International, a leader in emergency and public health supplies. NRS International has now redesigned its temporary shelters used in humanitarian and refugee settings to house the solar lights in special pockets.

Meanwhile, we’re providing NRS International with product development feedback on its medical light kit — each of which has four solar lights and two solar head torches — from midwives and other health workers caring for pregnant women and newborns in Kenya and Sierra Leone.

Bright future for cross-sector partnerships

Some of the world’s top business leaders meet this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss their growing role in making the world a better place. No longer are companies simply signing checks or donating supplies to a disaster response. A slow revolution has changed how they are collaborating with humanitarian organizations like ourselves. These days, we combine our unique expertise in ways that offer advantages to each partner and advance common goals.

The notion of partnering to provide value to both underscores our other collaborations with business. In Kenya, our Maker for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health program’s new partnership with UNICEF and the Philips Foundation will harness not just funding from Philips but technical assistance and training. Maker, which brings together university engineers and hospital nurses to design better medical equipment for Kenya’s mothers and babies, fits squarely in a business sweet spot of Philips — producing medical equipment.

Further afield, examples of these creative partnerships abound.

Take Coca-Cola’s collaboration with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Coca-Cola has used its expertise in global distribution to help get life-saving medicines to people in hard-to-reach parts of the world. Or the German-based Deutsche Post Group, DHL, which deploys its logistical expertise and disaster response team to crisis zones in a partnership venture with the United Nations.

MasterCard’s venture with the World Food Program to help refugees buy local food with e-cards combines its expertise in online payment systems with WFP’s ability to get food aid to remote areas. OneResponse, a multipartner effort to coordinate humanitarian responses, has seen Microsoft collaborate with the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ online information hubs. And Google’s Crisis Response division has launched apps including Google Person Finder and Google Crisis Map to help in disasters.

Other more low-tech ventures are simultaneously saving lives and growing consumer bases. The Global Public-Private Partnership for Handwashing, a multipartner initiative that includes UNICEF, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever, uses behavior change communication and advocacy initiatives to promote handwashing to stop the spread of disease. The Vaseline Healing Project, a venture between Unilever and the international humanitarian organization Direct Relief, is bringing skin care, Unilever’s Vaseline products, medical supplies and health worker training to refugees and others communities in need.

Bridging the divide

Partnering with the private sector still evokes wariness in some humanitarians who feel more comfortable talking about aid than profit. Having spent four decades as a business executive at Xerox before joining Concern, it’s not difficult for me to straddle what are fast becoming obsolete ideological divides. For those organizations keen to come on board, here are some nuggets of advice:

1. Finding the right partner for a sustainable, long-term relationship can take time, so don’t rush into it. And don’t forget to look beyond the big players. While organizations may want to partner with a major multinational, small and midsize companies make up the bulk of the private sector and can make energetic and industrious partners too. Also, a clash of values can be impossible to overcome so choose a firm you feel good about teaming up with for the long term.

2. Make sure the company’s core capabilities complement your own, be it expertise, research and development, products, or services. Identify the gaps in your own organization that a partnership could fill. The relationship shouldn’t duplicate efforts but combine and amplify each partner’s assets for greatest results.

3. Ensure that there’s a business case that brings value to the company. The good news is that companies increasingly understand that profits in poor countries may be more modest or take longer to achieve.

4. Be open to exploring new ways of doing things. In some cases a relationship with a corporate can expose flaws in our standard operating procedures. Your partner’s insight can ultimately improve the health and vitality of an organization and should be seen in such a light.

5. Keep nurturing the relationship to establish mutual leadership, trust and respect, which are essential for any partnership to flourish. That it is why it’s so important that these relationships are not solely based on donations, which automatically skews the dynamic.

6. If it’s not working to the advantage of both parties, change it or end it. All too often, NGOs cling to a partnership that isn’t working or try to solve a major problem by making minor changes.

As we witness more extreme weather events, spreading conflict and swelling numbers of displaced people, the demands on our sector keep growing.  In this climate of escalating humanitarian crises, forging innovative partnerships with business will be more crucial than ever. Indeed, they are no longer an option, but an imperative for any successful NGO’s strategy.

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About the author

  • Joseph Cahalan

    Joseph M. Cahalan is the CEO of Concern Worldwide U.S., the affiliate of Concern Worldwide, a nongovernmental, international, humanitarian organization dedicated to the reduction of suffering and elimination of extreme poverty in the world's poorest countries. He came to Concern after more than 40 years at the Xerox Corp., where he served as vice president of communications and social responsibility and as president of the Xerox Foundation.