A Call for New Partnerships to Tackle the Humanitarian Crises

September 22, 2015

Q&A with Graham Craft, vice president of corporate and foundation partnerships at Mercy Corps, on how public-private partnerships can make much-needed change

It’s time to look at cross-sector collaboration in light of one of the most significant needs for resources and ideas of our time. Today, the number of refugees around the world numbers 60m, the highest since the end of World War II. Graham Craft, vice president of corporate partnerships at Mercy Corps, speaks from decades of experience on the biggest challenges of today and the near future and why partnerships can make the key difference.

Q: When we talk about humanitarian challenges, what kind of places are we talking about?

A: They’re what are often called “fragile states” as well as fragile environments inside otherwise healthier countries. What unites these places is that they tend to face a terrible combination of recurring violence and weak or corrupt governments. Nearly half of the world’s people living in extreme poverty live in fragile states — a number that will rise if we don’t take action.

Q: How do we begin to make a difference in these places?

A: Many changes are needed to really start making a difference in these fragile environments. The first is a wider realization that what happens in fragile places isn’t just a humanitarian concern contained inside those borders — although that’s hugely important.  What happens in places such as Syria or South Sudan has ripple effects on neighboring countries and the wider world.

The world has seen a lot of progress in reducing poverty in more stable places such as China and India. The really big challenge for the next 15 years is to tackle poverty in these fragile states. Nobody has all of the answers yet. At Mercy Corps, we do know that we need new approaches and unusual partnerships.

Q: What does the private sector bring to working in these difficult places?

Graham Craft, vice president of corporate and foundation partnerships at Mercy Corps

Graham Craft, vice president of corporate and foundation partnerships at Mercy Corps

A: We believe that sustainable solutions usually include links to markets. A successful business relationship isn’t a guarantee of success, but it is usually more durable than one dependent entirely on international aid or local volunteerism.

For example, I started my career with Mercy Corps during the war in Kosovo. When the fighting stopped, the international community began a massive relief and rebuilding effort that initially involved trucking in everything from food and blankets to building supplies, farm machinery and medicine. Aid responders like me worked diligently to assess the needs of each family and arrange distribution of a wide range of supplies.

Yet within weeks, satellite TV antennae had appeared even on ruined homes roofed over with plastic tarps. Small roadside markets sprang up selling diesel, food, household goods and — in some cases — humanitarian aid items such as sacks of flour or cans of cooking oil. We found this really alarming until we realized that, in most cases, these families had simply made a hard-headed calculation and decided they needed something else even more than they needed the cooking oil.

It made no sense that each family’s individual needs could be entirely met by mass distribution. There had to be a better way. We began to look for new approaches that helped put local business back on its feet faster and helped ensure that the most vulnerable people could meet their individual needs via local businesses.

Q: Survey data we’ve explored on the Center site show that NGOs think of the private sector as a source of funding and then, with some distance, as a source of expertise. Why do you think this is and how can this gap be closed? 

A: NGOs tend to see companies as sources of funding because that’s the most useful thing most companies have been able to offer so far. And it is greatly appreciated. The UN Appeal for Syria, for example, is less than 20% funded and every financial contribution to that effort can save and improve lives for people in really desperate situations.

But there’s also some currently underserved areas where business expertise can make a big difference — facilitating payments in emergencies or data protections, for instance. NGOs deal with large amounts of data about their programs, beneficiaries, partners and other stakeholders. We put a lot of emphasis on keeping our staff, partners and communities physically safe. But increasingly we need to reinforce how we protect their data as well. The NGO community can learn a lot from business.

The best way to get NGOs to begin taking advantage of non-financial resources is probably to focus more on co-creation, taking the time to understand the specific needs of the NGO community and collaborating on solutions.


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