The role of the private sector in humanitarian context

Text: Elina Warsta

European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) has over 140 registered partners, and it holds annual meetings with the partners to discuss recent developments, challenges and needs in the humanitarian sector. ECHO organized a session on the role of the private sector in humanitarian context to exchange views on how to engage better in public private partnerships (PPPs) on 1 December 2016 in Brussels. The partners conference is mostly closed event targeted to members only, but few private sector representatives were invited to participate in the private sector session, Finpro among them. ECHO is already involved in PPPs, but the engagement of private sector at early phase is new.

Ebola crisis and fast reaction of the ECHO humanitarian community to earmark 120 million for development of a vaccine with private entities was highlighted as an example of ECHOs actions. Although there are challenges and conflict of interest between humanitarian actors and private companies, there is a pressing need to find ways to cooperate before a crisis strikes.

Building trust and learning to work together takes time, and requires acknowledgment of different roles and strengths which partners can bring into table. United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) emphasizes the importance to set the rules and expectations for private sector involvement, which was also one of the outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit. 19 business consultations held prior to the Summit reveal that private sector wishes to have holistic approach from the whole humanitarian community (related to engagement of private sector), single entry point for tendering, and best practices for PPPs.

OCHA calls for government incentives to promote PPPs at larger scale, and draws attention to Connecting Business Initiatives (CBIs), which are follow-up for the World Humanitarian Summit, and in which OCHA has been one of the organizers. Examples of these initiatives include creation of humanitarian networks that are complementing already existing networks in Fiji, Madagascar, Myanmar or the Philippines. Furthermore, a national action plan for private sector engagement in humanitarian context has been created in the Philippines.


Soros Fund Management claims the migrant crisis has become the new normal, indicating its transformation into permanent phenomena, which is here to stay and which gives a basis to attract private investments. Soros Fund Management has 500 million USD to invest in business contribution related to humanitarian issues. It is building project guidelines for migrants’ (1) financial inclusion; (2) health services including distance doctor services or outside hospital care; (3) access to employment and labor market including job matching platforms or vocational training; as well as (4) digital identity. Companies are invited to propose projects and innovative solutions along the guidelines.

World Vision has PPP initiatives in East Africa, and as part of a Connecting Business Initiative, they have created a communication network between humanitarian actors and businesses working in Kenya after visiting a refugee camp together with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Master Card. This particular camp has been in place for 20 years close to Kenyan border, and it is accommodating about 200 000 people, mainly from South Sudan. Despite all efforts to coordinate humanitarian work better, there is clear need to communicate better on “who is doing what where” and what are the related business opportunities. Thus, a new platform for this purpose has been created.

Master Card reminds that 83% of global transactions are still made in cash, which imposes threat of mismanagement or corruption. Master Card is already working with NGOs all over the world, and delivering payment card solutions for example in Lebanon, Jordan and Mozambique, and working in cooperation with donor countries such as Finland or Germany. In Turkey Master Card is working in cooperation with the Turkish Red Crescent by consolidating information and by delivering aid (allocated by EU) to over 1 million people.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has a long history in working with the private sector, and reminds that although all UN organizations have compliance to report to donors, it is possible to find ways to work together with the private sector, and learn to manage the conflict of interest between different actors. Humanitarian actors prefer expressions such as “win-win-situation” and avoid using words such as “profit” as much as possible. On the other hand, when operations are based on viable business solutions, they remain operational regardless of the flow of donations, if they are sustainable.

The ECHO session revealed where the largest challenges lay: in communication networks, in attitudes (willingness to work together), as well as in setting the common objectives and rules. Forming partnerships requires long term commitment, and efforts to understand the different language and needs of one another. International organizations and NGOs provide operational knowledge and access to field at local environments, while private companies offer innovative solutions to tackle the crisis situation. Co-creation by humanitarian actors and private sector is possible, but shared values are important, and humanitarian principles humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence non-negotiable.