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The Business Case: A study of private sector engagement in humanitarian action


UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 28 November 2017

The private sector is a fundamental component of local communities affected by humanitarian crises, and it has long been engaged in humanitarian emergency preparedness, response and recovery. Private sector actors are present before humanitarian crises occur and as crises unfold, and they are among the first part of society to respond. Private sector actors, whether small or large, operating directly in humanitarian contexts or indirectly through supply chains, can leverage their own expertise, resources, channels and influence to address humanitarian needs and make positive contributions to long-term sustainable peace and development.

They can do so independently by working directly with people affected by humanitarian crises, as well as by collaborating with humanitarian organizations at the local, regional and international levels.
Much has been written on how humanitarian organizations see private sector engagement, on the value of private sector engagement to humanitarian action, and on the need for companies to comply with international humanitarian principles and human rights standards. However, little has been said on how private sector actors perceive their own engagement in humanitarian action.

This study was motivated by an increasing public recognition that while Governments have the primary responsibility for humanitarian assistance and planning, the changing humanitarian landscape and needs can no longer be addressed effectively by humanitarian actors alone. The study is aimed at three key audiences: private sector actors, the humanitarian community and Governments.

This study focuses on the perspectives of private sector actors regarding their engagement in humanitarian action, collated from a review of existing published material, 51 interviews, and a survey of 36 representatives of businesses and business foundations. Through these perceptions, this study attempts to promote a better understanding of private sector humanitarian engagement, and to encourage principled, timely and effective humanitarian action through collaboration. The results were collated and used to identify four key rationales/motivations identified by the private sector, recognizing that any specific engagement may simultaneously incorporate one or more rationales.

In addition to grouping the responses into different rationales and models, the paper captures the diverse and individual voices of different company representatives, providing vivid examples of what motivates their companies, employees, shareholders and customers to engage in humanitarian action.
The study notes that companies take partnerships with humanitarian organizations seriously, and that 70 per cent of respondents said that the expected value or return on investment was very important in deciding whether to pursue a partnership. However only 37 per cent said that they formally measure the value of the engagement. Many noted the importance of goals in partnerships and the need to avoid a loss in value. Others noted that projects are expected to provide a credibly attributable return on investment within defined time frames.

The study provides recommendations from private sector actors for other businesses, Governments and humanitarian organizations. The recommendations are intended to improve engagement strategies for businesses, and to identify opportunities for Governments and the humanitarian community to further their goals in shaping partnerships and other informal methods of engagement.

The study stresses that in order to achieve positive and effective humanitarian impact, adherence to humanitarian principles and human rights standards should be as important for businesses as it is for humanitarian and other actors. More tools to support private sector engagement in humanitarian engagement are also needed.

The study concludes by noting that additional work is required for a fully comprehensive and more rigorous study on the motivations for businesses to engage in humanitarian action in a variety of different geopolitical contexts. More research is also required that comprehensively includes small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in order to understand the return on investment and opportunities for companies to play a positive role in raising public awareness on issues that may be relevant to humanitarian action.


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