5 Years After the Tsunami : Lessons Learned in Corporate Humanitarian Assistance

Five years ago, at 7:59 a.m. local time on December 26, 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck the waters off the Sri Lankan coast, triggering a massive tsunami that would eventually reach the shores of eight countries. Soon, over 230,000 people were killed  (half of which were children) and an equal number were injured. Some 5 million more were in need of some form of emergency relief—medical attention, shelter, clothes, food—just to make it through the days ahead.

The unprecedented disaster was met by an equal outpouring of generosity – particularly from the private sector.  Private and corporate donations accounted for over $5.1 billion within the first year after the Tsunami.  My job at the time, was to build and oversee corporate partnerships with UN agencies.  With this support we set-up emergency telecommunication systems, vaccinated millions against measles and other diseases, helped communities rebuild their own homes, rebuilt water and sanitation systems and created tracking and accounting systems to ensure effective use of the funds.  The work, and its results, is inspiring.

Since 2004, we have seen a series of large-scale devastating natural disasters: Katrina and Rita, the 2005 Pakistan Earthquake, cyclone Nargis in Myanmar and the 2008 Chinese earthquake to name a few.  Throughout my career, I have played a role in assisting as I can in the aftermath of each of these.  Following are a few key lessons I have gleaned.

1.     Extend existing or pre-positioned partnerships to support immediate relief.

If interested in contributing to early relief phase of a disaster, companies should focus on either (a) supporting effective organizations they already have a relationship with, or (b) establishing pre-positioned, strategic partnerships designed to be "switched on" following a disaster.

 

2.     Allocate "patient capital" for long-term solutions 

Donations to humanitarian emergencies are often driven by media attention at the sudden onset of a disaster.  Many private donors earmark funds for the immediate relief effort, with far less support going to long-term needs.  Private donors and companies should consider setting aside "patient capital" which can be targeted at rebuilding projects.

 

3.     Ensure that everything is anchored locally and demand-driven.  

Alliances between corporations and nonprofits are often forged at the headquarters level.  However, to be successful, the project activities must be driven locally with the leadership and full involvement of the relevant markets and country offices, taking their cues from the needs and aspirations of the communities they are seeking to serve.

 

4.     Product donations must be demand driven and appropriate: 

Following an emergency, many companies seek to make in-kind donations.  In spite of their good intentions, this can hinder relief efforts – clogging up supply chains and warehouse space, distracting relief workers, and/or conflicting with social, political and cultural values.  Before moving ahead on any in-kind donation, it is important to work with all stakeholders - to ensure that the donation is demand-driven and appropriate and that there is a clear strategy to receive and manage the donation.

 

5.     Pro-bono is not necessarily a "free lunch":

As with all partnerships – there are incurred costs by the recipient in accepting and maximizing pro-bono services.  Consider including some financial support in any pro-bono offer that is directed at ensuring the success of your joint efforts.

 

6.     Dedicate staff to the partnership:  

To ensure success, corporate-NGO partnerships must be appropriately staffed on all sides to manage and oversee its activities.  Developing a core partnership team to help manage the intensive consultations, project identification, design, funding and communications components are also critical.

 

7.     Build relationships for longer-term development. 

Disasters and emergencies also serve as catalysts to establishing new relationships between companies and aid organizations.  For example, the partnership between Coca-Cola Company and the UN Foundation to rebuild community waster and sanitation infrastructure helped to lead to their efforts to establish of the Global Water Challenge. 

 

8.     Be patient – the process of reconstruction is complex:  

Full recovery from a disaster of significant scale and impact may take 5 to 10 years and sometimes even longer.  Many steps need to be taken before project design, funding, and implementation can begin – from clearing rubble to assessing damage and needs, developing sound national and local recovery plans, and in some cases recruiting and training staff to manage specialised rebuilding work.  This work is complex and requires patience. 

 Corporate support in the aftermath of a disaster can have a transformable impact on both the scale and quality of humanitarian response.  An effective response will help companies will help meet the needs of the communities and aid organizations working to respond to the disaster while providing a high level of return on investment for the employees, markets and brands involved.

 

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