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

5 years ago today, the Indian Ocean Tsunami killed over 230,000 people and left many millions in need of emergency relief. The disaster was met by an outpouring of generosity from the private sector. Since 2004, I have played a role in assisting companies looking to help in the aftermaths of disasters in New Orleans, Pakistan, Myanmar and China. Following are a few key lessons I’ve gleaned.


years ago,
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.

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.

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.



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

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


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.



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.