How Humanitarian Aid and the Private Sector Intersect

There I sat in an open air, dusty bar in the heart of Juba, South Sudan, having my standard Nile Special beer while talking to a colleague employed in the private sector. I was working for a large, logistics based United Nations agency, and my beer imbibing companion was working for a local brewing company. With both of us being loggies at heart, we quietly discussed transport suppliers and transport rates, a sensitive topic no supplier wants their customers to have. However, when I asked about the transport rates he was paying, my heart dropped. His company was paying 40 percent less than our organization for the same contractors doing the same work. When I prompted him, he smiled and said, “We pay all invoices in under two weeks. You take six months. Someone has to pay for that delay.”

UN aid worker in Swat Valley, Pakistan.

Business processes are boring. Most senior managers I have met at both nonprofit and UN agencies did not appreciate the power, or more importantly, the work, required of creating process efficiencies. I have seen senior managers in the field be required to sign mountains of printed documents, materials which would be difficult to track down months later. Invoices from contractors took months to be settled, and the suppliers were expected to eat the cost. And yet, when it comes to partnering or engaging private companies, many humanitarian agencies seem to want a magic “tool” which would resolve all internal issues (or cash) without knowing how to use new technology in support of effective change. No magical piece of software will tell an organization what’s in their warehouse if their staff have no stock-keeping procedures in place.

At the same time, many companies have been developing more interest and expanding their support of humanitarian efforts out of an increased sense of social responsibility and internal pragmatism. Companies, especially those with a large international footprint, have recognized the need to play a responsible role in society and look at how to provide internal resources to philanthropic efforts. Equally important, many companies have been discovering the younger generation of workers now fully expect such involvement. Recruiters in the tech industry will tell you this topic ranks high in importance for young workers, and a company’s ability to offer such opportunities to its staff will affect a recruit’s acceptance of an offer.

The primary problem, however, lies in how to bridge the desire for support and the resources to provide it. Everyone wants to help, that goes without question, but the challenge lies in providing the appropriate level of assistance in a manner that has meaningful impact. Private companies will never be able provide the sheer scale of financial resources required to undertake a large-scale humanitarian response and to operate meaningful developmental programs. I have been part of emergency feeding programs in South Sudan where my agency spent over a $1 million a day, but even for a Fortune 500 company, this amount may represent their entire annual cash grant budget.

Nevertheless, opportunities exist for pragmatic, realistic partnership. In the private sector, companies continuously seek to derive efficiencies out of their business processes, especially considering that high efficiency translates to higher profitability. For instance, an efficient private company would look at the previous situation of paperwork bogging down a senior manager and point out the time wasted and taken away from their main duties. They would also cringe at the poor tracking of sensitive documents and the lost opportunities to negotiate lower cost from contractors.

Opportunities exist to create impactful and realistic partnerships, but there remains more work to be done. With a focus on refining business processes, companies can provide temporary expertise in process improvement and change management as well as assist in developing new technology and tools. As an example, the hackings of 2016 helped demonstrate the importance for nonprofits and organizations of all types to be proactive in their attitude towards cybersecurity. And looking forward, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP) will be coming into effect in May 2018, which will have a large-scale impact on how organizations treat data privacy. Failure to ensure safe, secure cyber platforms that support business processes for staff and beneficiaries will expose agencies to both reputational and legal risks. Private companies can help agencies address such issues as long as agencies take the responsibility of the work required to maintain what the partnership develops.

Many in the humanitarian sector are seeking to transform themselves into more efficient, impact driven organizations. The sheer scale of resources required to provide relief in both sudden and slow onset humanitarian disasters means government support will remain a critical component of any response. However, through the support of the private sector, aid agencies can seek out the vital technological and business process improvements required to make them more efficient and impactful responders. Private companies will never replace agencies that provide relief or the governments and foundations able to allocate substantial financial resources. Still, they have value to add with the deployment of new technologies, access to professional capacity building and, most importantly, the modernization of business processes.

*Author’s note: I do not work for Nordstrom’s, though that would be fun.

Cameron Birge is an Army veteran and former overseas aid worker who now guides a large tech company in their international humanitarian response.

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