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Humanitarian crises, emergency preparedness and response: final report

The private sector has long been a major contributor to humanitarian action. At the community level, businesses frequently use their materials and resources to aid people affected by crises. As local markets recover and supply chains are repaired, crisis-affected people are once again able to access basic goods and, in some cases, resume livelihoods. Large national, regional and multinational firms are also closely involved in supporting humanitarian objectives, whether indirectly, by resuming operations in crisisaffected areas, or directly, by providing cash and inkind donations of goods or services. In recent years the humanitarian community has introduced new forms of private sector engagement, including partnerships between aid agencies and corporations and businessdriven innovation in a number of sectors.

The growing role of businesses in aid – and the leveraging of corporate resources and capacities for emergency response and preparedness – has immense potential and wide-ranging benefits. It also poses a significant challenge to the humanitarian sector as traditionally conceived. Private companies are increasingly being considered as an alternative to international aid agencies, particularly in middleincome, ‘emerging’ and state capitalist economies, as well as in states which are sensitive regarding their internal affairs. Entire elements of humanitarian action, including cash transfers, telecommunications and logistics, have been transformed as businesses have become increasingly involved. Affected populations increasingly expect aid agencies to provide assistance through local markets, rather than serving as frontline aid providers themselves.

This report outlines the findings of a study on ‘Humanitarian crises, emergency preparedness and response: the roles of business and the private sector’, undertaken by the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, the Humanitarian Futures Programme at King’s College London, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Vantage Partners, with financial support from the UK Department for International Development. The nine-month study involved original research in Kenya, Jordan, Indonesia and Haiti and additional in-person and online consultations with leading humanitarian and private sector specialists. The entire study, including a March 2014 workshop, aimed to capture not only the private sector’s current role in humanitarian action, but also the role it might play alongside governments and aid agencies as the nature of vulnerability and crises evolves in the future.

The project found that the private sector is contributing to emergency response and preparedness at many levels and in diverse ways. Despite a former tendency for aid agencies to view businesses as prospective donors, their greatest direct contribution has come in the form of new technologies and other innovations and the sharing of technical capacities in areas such as logistics, telecommunications and cash transfers. In addition, businesses, as seen in the growth of social enterprises, are increasingly developing models which are commercial in nature but which ultimately help to meet humanitarian needs and reduce vulnerability to future disasters.

The study finds that the nexus of commercial interests, emergency preparedness and risk reduction has immense potential for humanitarian action, though existing humanitarian models will still be required, in some form, to meet the needs of particularly vulnerable groups in dire circumstances. Furthermore, there will continue to

be issues and contexts where the private sector may not be able to contribute as fully. These include, for instance, various elements of protection (e.g. sexual and gender-based violence), highly sensitive conflict situations and protracted crises.

While noting several opportunities and benefits, a range of barriers restricts the private sector’s contribution to humanitarian action. These include a number of very basic issues: aid agencies and businesses tend to use specialist vocabularies that are hard for one another to decipher; there are few online and in-person forums for the aid and business communities to come together to build mutual understanding and identify opportunities to work together or in parallel; and many humanitarians and business figures are aware of only a minute number of the potential ways in which they can collaborate, constraining the development of truly innovative partnerships. Discussions between aid agencies and private enterprise frequently involve fundraising and public relations personnel rather than the technical experts who could develop more innovative collaboration.

This study aimed to develop a way forward rather than focus on obstacles. Hence, the report outlines a number of tangible recommendations for increasing private sector engagement, whether this involves partnerships between aid agencies and businesses or strictly business-led initiatives. Each of these recommendations should be carefully considered by key members of the humanitarian community and private sector, and representatives of both should be convened to discuss the findings of this study and jointly develop a way forward.