We Mean Business

I’ve just spent two days in intensive meetings meant to take to the next level my employer’s in-house conversation about tapping into corporate support for relief and development work.

My prior grumbling clearly has not worked. And I find myself being worn down…

For-profit sector interest involvement in aid work is fully a reality of the world we live in now. We (and I say this for my own benefit as much as for the benefit of anyone else) need to acknowledge and deal with this reality.

Thinking out loud about what this means…

Just like bilateral, governmental and large institutional donors, corporate donors represent a very wide range of motivations and objectives, and also technical rigor. We must never allow ourselves to lose sight of the fact that, regardless of any community benefit language that they may use, benevolent programming that they might support, or even as good as they might actually be, the for-profit sector and for-profit companies exist precisely for the purpose of making profit. Which means that they will come to the humanitarian aid conversation with a set of assumptions, priorities, goals and tolerances that do not necessarily overlap with ours.

I do not write this out of cynicism or distrust (although there’s justification for both), but simply as a statement of fact. We’re quite used to talking about this divergence of interests between NGOs and donors when it comes to bilateral government donors or funding from institutions like the World Bank. But it seems we’ve been initially somewhat naïve on that point when it comes to corporate donors. Maybe we’ve allowed ourselves to believe, wrongly, that because the proposal formats, approval processes and reporting requirements for corporate funds seem almost endearingly simple in comparison to government grants, that corporate grant-making is somehow less calculated towards end goals. Donors fund aid work based on what they believe will advance their own interests. Period.

As well, after several decades now of NGO engagement and push-back and “donor advocacy” towards our more traditional governmental and institutional donors, we seem to have achieved a level of comfort with those relationships. We know very well where the areas of divergence and overlap are, and we know from experience where we can push-back and how. We’ve kind of made peace with the fact that we have to agree to disagree with those donors on some points. But now we’re having to start the process of getting to this point from the beginning with our corporate donors. It feels redundant, like going back to square one, and that’s frustrating.

We need to view and talk about and interact with the for-profit sector fully as an “aid actor” – and I mean “aid actor” in the same sense that we talk about ourselves, the UN, big bilateral donors like USAID or the EC, and relevant host government entities. Whether they participate in coordination meetings or not, whether they engage in the kind of analytical, strategic or competitive bidding processes that other aid actors do, the for-profits are increasingly a central part of the big picture, the “aid environment.” Corporations are fully part of the aid environment (they have been for some time, actually – what’s changed recently is that they themselves articulate that they are), and we need to engage them directly on those terms. We do everyone, including ourselves and our beneficiaries less than full service if we segregate out the for-profits in our overall thinking.

NGOs and perhaps particularly INGOs need to remain clear, internally and externally, about their/our role in the aid conversation. I see the role of NGOs becoming specifically more about advocacy, representation, championing the cause of the poor. Both the traditional donors and aid-involved corporations now increasingly employ aid professionals and maintain social responsibility units with immense technical capability. Our resource constraints will eventually mean that we cannot keep up with them on that front. Yet of all of the aid actors and non-aid actors in the aid conversation, NGOs are the only ones whose primary interest is (or should be) benefit to the poor on their own terms. For donors, whether governments, foundations, corporations, or individuals, helping the poor is a means to another end: advancing foreign policy, gaining market share, a tax write-off or accumulating treasure in Heaven. For NGOs, helping the poor is itself the end. We should be careful to not  understate our importance on this point.

Maybe we need to mean business about our core business. Maybe we need to get back to our roots of essentially telling donors what to care about and how to spend their money. We did it USAID and DFID and the EC and AusAID and the UN (and many others). Now we need to do it with the corporate sector.

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More than numbers

The number of confirmed dead is, and for good reason remains, one of the first things that we tend to look at when trying to gauge the relative size and impact of a disaster event. The problem is, firstly, that we tend to compare every disaster to every other disaster. And secondly, that an accurate and accepted death count can be extremely difficult to get. So, after Cyclone Nargis most every other typhoon or hurricane pales in comparison. 1,100 dead (or is it only 700-and-something?) in western Sumatra is but a fraction of the nearly 200,000 (depending on whose numbers one chooses to believe) who lost their lives in the Aeryawaddy river delta in May of 2008. Typhoon Ketsana was not even really trying with a measly 200-and-something in the Philippines. With death tolls of fewer than 100 and 20, Vietnam and Laos, respectively, barely register.

We sit in our cubicles in DC or Canberra or Bangkok or even Da Nang and quickly assess and rank the disaster zones on the basis of a few drops of ink on paper. We make sweeping decisions about where the resources go based on numbers. Out of context it’s too easy to let those number seem small. Only 20 dead…

In the United States’ Emergency Medical Service (EMS) system, a “disaster” is defined any single event that results in the death of over 100 people. More than 25 trauma victims is a “mass casualty incident” (MCI).

I don’t know about you, but even 20… 20 people is a number that I have a hard time wrapping my head around. I have hundreds of acquaintances, but I’m not sure that I can count 20 close friends. 20 dead – and that’s the lowest number in the spate of recent disasters – is already a big number. 20 dead, I cannot directly comprehend in real terms.

Or 100. That was more or less the number of people in the head office at my previous job. Getting a picture of the entire staff required the photographer to go up a hook-and-ladder. About 100 dead following Typhoon Ketsana in Vietnam feels huge.

What about 300? Or 1,100? Maybe 1,100 is but a fraction of 70,000-something who perished in the Sichuan earthquake. But small as it may be by comparison, it represents an ocean of human suffering nevertheless.

We were right to feel that the massive death tolls in Myanmar and China demanded our attention, our action. But we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of in-urgency by the smaller numbers that we’re seeing in Asia right now.

Whether by war or natural disaster or any other cause…

A death toll of only one is already a human tragedy.