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Photo: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps
"Aid organisations are improving lives with fourth industrial revolution technologies and the indispensable partnership of the corporate world. These efforts are good PR but they are also good business. Even more importantly, they help build a better, more cooperative world" - says Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps
Skyrocketing numbers of people fleeing conflict. Increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters. Decreased diplomatic efforts. Slashed foreign aid budgets. A West that is increasingly embracing narrow nationalism and isolation. It all leaves us in the humanitarian community concerned for the future of our interconnected world. The inclination of political leaders to withdraw more than cooperate bodes ill for the most vulnerable around the world and leaves a vacuum where there was once values-based, moral leadership—imperfect, at times hypocritical, yet aspirational around human rights for all.
Someone must step up to fill that void.
While still pushing governments not to abandon those values, humanitarians and social change actors must take this moment to boldly embrace those major market players that are eager to take an active role in the defense of social good and in support of humanity. It is too easy to bash the corporate world. Certainly, green-washing and pink-washing projects that are more flash than substance need to be called out. And global capitalism, while enabling record numbers to escape extreme poverty, has yielded unsustainable and unjust levels of inequality, especially in more advanced economies. Global capitalism must reinvent itself.
Still, we need to appreciate those global companies that are taking up the mantle of leadership, both in addressing society’s most pressing needs and in continuing to uphold the values of shared society. They are an important counterweight as some countries step back from global responsibilities and cooperation.
Businesses will always be motivated by the bottom line. What is different now is that enlightened corporate leaders understand how interconnected our world truly is, from supply chains, to talent, to ideas and innovation. An interconnected, flat world and global economy requires cooperation, norms and values, and a sense of shared society, not segregated society. More employees and customers are now pushing companies to behave responsibly; smart companies and their leaders are listening. The corporate sector’s pursuit of innovation is being intentionally applied in the humanitarian sphere and in service of solving the world’s toughest challenges. There are many powerful examples we should applaud.
Industry leaders like Cisco, Google, Microsoft and Mastercard are all applying fourth industrial revolution technologies to tackle humanitarian challenges, enhance innovation, and deliver better social welfare, economic and governance outcomes. For example, Cisco and Mercy Corps are working together to leverage the power of technology to deliver aid and development assistance faster, better and to more people around the world. In Iraq we are piloting the use of virtual reality technology for therapeutic use and to support the wellbeing of young people who are experiencing PTSD as a result of long-standing conflict. We’re excited about the potential for this to be an impactful and cost-effective way of helping young people recover from trauma.
And Mastercard and Mercy Corps have joined forces to drive digital payments in humanitarian settings around the world so that people facing crisis can buy what they need most urgently with dignity of choice—safely and efficiently.
Several big players are engaging in direct action on one of the most pressing issues of our time: the refugee crisis. Through a partnership with Google, TripAdvisor, Microsoft, Cisco, and the International Rescue Committee, we built a suite of digital tools to help refugees access critical information in seven languages. It was originally set up in Greece in 2015, and since then the program has expanded into Italy and new sites have launched in Jordan and El Salvador. The program has been so successful that we are assessing its potential to expand into additional areas in Europe, West Africa, and even South America. And we’re having impact at scale - we’ve reached 1 million people with this critical tool.
Airbnb is leveraging the power of its business platform for greater good through its Open Homes program—an initiative where hosts can offer temporary housing to people who need to leave their homes because of disasters, conflict or illness. Airbnb has also supported Mercy Corps' emergency relief efforts by offering housing credits for our first responders in places like Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Puerto Rico and Indonesia.
In Colombia, Starbucks has partnered with Mercy Corps and others to support farmers with land titles, food security and natural resource management, taking a holistic approach to community development and helping scores of families boost their standard of living and protect the environment. These efforts are critical as Colombia moves to consolidate peace.
Starbucks has also proven to be a great example of how companies contribute to disaster response and recovery. Starbucks is donating 2 million disease-resilient seeds to help Puerto Rican farmers revive their coffee industry after Hurricanes Irma and Maria nearly wiped out the harvest in 2017. And with support from Walmart and The Miami Foundation, Mercy Corps is helping communities in Puerto Rico recover and build resilience by ensuring access to energy and water, preparing for future disasters, and supporting farmers and other small businesses.
These are just a handful of stories about how aid organizations like mine improve lives with the indispensable partnership of the corporate world. Sure, these efforts are good PR. But they are also good business. Even more, they help build a better, more cooperative world. That’s why I applaud these companies and their leaders, encourage multinational corporations to do more, and urge the social change and humanitarian community to embrace these partnerships.
The world is in a state of flux, and the cooperative international order that helped fuel economic growth and keep relative peace for much of the last 70 years has been shaken. Companies of course cannot fill the void created by the unraveling of the international system and the erosion of global norms and values. But they are playing an essential role in tackling some of the most pressing humanitarian issues of our time and in upholding a belief in global cooperation and shared society. That’s worth applauding!
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