WASHINGTON - August 26 - The past few years have seen quite a number of voices calling for the private sector to come on board and play their part on humanitarian issues. Although few corporate organizations have heeded the calls, the response has demonstrated that there is still a lot of advocacy work to be before the business community realizes that they really have an imperative role to play in humanitarian action.
The first question that comes to mind is; why does the business community have to play their part in humanitarian action, especially in Africa? Before getting into details on this, perhaps it is important to present this in a specific context.
In 2003 alone, it was estimated that over 250 million people were affected by natural or human made disasters, whilst it is estimated that in 2004 AIDS killed more than 3million in sub-Saharan Africa. Currently it is estimated that more 25 % of the population is living with HIV (UNAIDS 2004), whilst the recent tsunami has claimed approximately half a million lives and affected several others. To add on to that, there are over twelve million children orphaned by AIDS, and more children made vulnerable by HIV and AIDS.
Although some of these calamities are beyond our control, there are some which can be mitigated against. For all these the private sector has not been very active. May be they assume it is the sole responsibility of the humanitarian sector, but the private sector loses more. It is important to point out that humanitarian action is driven by the desire to save human life - no profit motives at all. On the other hand the private sector survives on the same communities which the humanitarian actors are thriving to save.
Human suffering is unquantifiable but the economic cost of these crises amount to several billions. It should be noted that the frequency of the disasters is increasing and vulnerable populations do not always recover from one crisis before the next one strikes, hampering the long term development of many years.
In the case of HIV and AIDS in Africa it is clear that the corporate sector has taken too long to respond, whilst their future base is on fire. It is seemingly clear that they have left the responsibility on the ‘third sector’ - the humanitarian organization which relies heavily on voluntarily funding, i.e. on contributions from organisations such as private donors and government agencies. Many of their programmes focus on community-level development that has a direct impact on the well-being of the most vulnerable people. The more their lives improve through humanitarian programmes, the more the private sector benefits from the same communities.
Reducing disasters vulnerability and the impact of HIV and AIDS through preparation, prevention and response is one of the stepping stones to achieving sustainable development. It is a challenge not only for governments and humanitarian organizations but also for the international business community, for whom a stable economy and safe working environment is critical. Achieving this stability is a challenge the humanitarian players such as the Federation undertakes every day.
Take for example, the current figure of more than 12 million children already orphaned by AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, with already more than 25% of the population living with the virus. These statistics are scaring if one imagines that 25% of the 120million people in Southern Africa are living with the virus. This means nearly 50 million more children will be orphaned in the next few years on top of the current figures which we can cope with at the moment. In economic terms how much is the corporate sector losing in terms of labour, customers and the profits?
It is even worrisome to think that the current orphan statistics in Africa are overwhelming and most of them do not have access to education, food, health, shelter and other basics. The million dollar question is; where does this put the future of the corporate sector, if they do not play their part now? Is the corporate sector going to stand aside and look while the humanitarian players struggle? Isn’t true that in economic terms, the business sector benefit more from investing in the communities?
“It is clear that those of us in the third sector (humanitarian sector) cannot confront all of the world's problems alone,” says Francoise Le Goff, head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in Southern Africa. “As the mission statement of the International Federation says, we need to mobilize the power of humanity. We need to work together, in partnership, to meet the humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable. We need to promote and nurture a culture of global social responsibility. And the interaction between humanitarian and not-for-profit organizations, and government and business will be key to achieving that.”
Many companies have corporate social responsibility fund under their public relation portfolio, which is basically meant to be ploughed back to the communities. Corporate Social Responsibility is practiced by companies which decide voluntarily to contribute to a better society and a cleaner environment. More and more companies are recognizing that their social responsibility must be considered to be an integral part of their own corporate identity, but their knowledge of the humanitarian issues may be limited as some have never really come face to face with reality. This calls for partnership between the two sectors and compliment each other.
Corporate social responsibility runs deeper than simple charitable action on the part of the business world – economically and socially stable communities provide a better environment for commerce. Corporations recognize the benefits of social investment in the communities in which they operate, protecting their business interests through assistance to the local population. Organizations such as the Red Cross can help business through its experience and expertise to deliver community welfare, health ad disaster mitigation programmes throughout the world.
The Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are also provide a wide network of volunteers and several other community projects, especially in Africa. These structures do not require day to day management because the communities are running most of the project on their own. All they need is a bit of skills training on simple issue. In Mwanza district, Malawi, for example, communities through their community leader established child care centers which are catering early learning and psychological support for children, most of which are orphans. All they need is support of resources that are not locally available. The Red Cross is only providing training for the care facilitators.
Sponsorship is one option corporate sector can pursue, where a company can sponsor orphans’ education up to a certain level where they will be able to be self reliant. Or possibly adopt a school for, say, five years looking after their requirements and then encourage all orphans to attend school without paying school fees. This will certainly go a long way in changing the future of these children.
Businesses can gain much from the perspective and dedication of the third sector. But the relationship can also be mutually beneficial. Humanitarian organizations can also learn much from the private sector about the need to maximize the use of resources, and to focus on results. An example of positive partnership is a recent agreement signed between the International Federation and Ericsson. Ericsson is providing telecommunications support and technical assistance to Federation emergency relief operations. In return, the Federation is providing emergency and disaster response training to Ericsson's staff.
The Red Cross and Crescent societies see value-based strategic partnership with corporations as a way to mobilize competences and resources from different sectors which provides an opportunity to work more closely with corporations in order to offer the world’s needy a better and safer future. Each of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies is woven into social fabric of the community it serves. This makes it a unique and valuable partner for corporations wishing to invest in sustainable and cost effective programmes for building local capacity.
Le Goff added that the massive relief operations invariably capture media attention. However, the Red Cross’ health and welfare programmes, initiatives in disaster preparedness and the drive to build community capacity take place every day, all over the world. While the work of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies varies depending on the needs of their community, the belief in humanitarian values underscores everything.
“For the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and as a leading humanitarian organization, we share a belief that even in the worst of times, and the worst of situations, we all have a collective responsibility to alleviate suffering and protect human dignity. That belief is especially relevant and important today. In these fragile times, humanitarian emergencies, whether from disasters or conflicts or other causes, are increasingly complex. And meeting the needs of the most vulnerable is becoming more challenging,” says Le Goff.