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Social Capitalists: Mercy Corps

43 entrepreneurs who are changing the world
Social Capitalist 2008 Winner

Mercy Corps

Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO
Portland, Oregon
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Mercy Corps never shies away from a challenge. For more than 25 years, the global humanitarian organization has used innovative, entrepreneurial thinking to tackle some of the world’s most difficult problems. Mercy Corps works with people whose lives have been shattered by conflict or natural disasters, and it operates in many of the toughest places in the world: Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan and Somalia, just to name a few.

Mercy Corps' goal is to help transform places wracked by poverty, conflict and oppression into peaceful, prosperous and just communities. It strives to create opportunities that many of us in wealthy countries take for granted. Mercy Corps is helping to build places where people have basics like food, water and healthcare. Kids can go to school. Men and women can learn skills, get jobs and start businesses. All people know and can stand up for their rights, and conflicts that previously ended in violence can be settled through dialogue, not violence.

The organization's work looks different in each of the more than 35 countries where it works. In places hit by natural disaster or war, Mercy Corps provides life-saving emergency relief. In countries undergoing difficult transitions, Mercy Corps fosters economic development and connects people with their governments. In the U.S., a team of Mercy Corps educators works with young people to change the way they think about –- and act on -– issues like global poverty.

The common denominator is Mercy Corps' approach. They insist on serving up smart, bold solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The agency makes a practice of working with local communities to prioritize their needs, rather than imposing priorities on them; it is critical that communities "own" their development. They bring together governments, the private sector and local organizations to effect positive change that will stick. Mercy Corps adds the most value by supporting seeds of change in the wake of turmoil and tragedy.

Many of Mercy Corps programs are rooted in a core belief that markets have tremendous power to help people escape poverty. In Guatemala, for example, Mercy Corps has teamed up with Wal-Mart and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to help rural farmers learn how to supply their products to big retailers. Mercy Corps and its partners teach these farmers about crop diversification and production techniques, provide critical pricing information, enable their products to reach Guatemalan and global standards, and offer start-up grants to buy seeds, fertilizers, tools and equipment. The expected result is that 4,200 people will have better, more reliable incomes and will benefit for generations to come.

This kind of innovative thinking and tenacity is at work elsewhere, too. You can see it in Kyrgyzstan, where Mercy Corps started a lending organization for the poor that has grown to become the second-largest financial institution in the country. It's on display in Indonesia, where the agency’s response to the 2004 tsunami empowered local survivors to get jobs and take the lead in their own recovery. And even in war-torn Iraq, Mercy Corps is still on the ground assisting people who’ve had to flee their homes to get vital resources and helping the most vulnerable people—women and people with disabilities -- to become engaged citizens.