International aid agencies gain unexpected help from corporate sector

With more refugees in the world today than any point since the Second World War and as Western governments like Canada slash spending on foreign aid, aid agencies are increasingly looking for help from an unlikely quarter: the corporate sector.

Private sources step up to offer new solutions – but not everyone is a fan

The Vodafone Foundation and the UN Refugee Agency provide tablet-based learning in schools at the Dadaab refugee settlement in Kenya. Aid agencies are finding new ways to offer relief through support from an unexpected source: the corporate sector. (Vodafone Foundation/UNHCR Dadaab)

With more refugees in the world today than any point since the Second World War and as Western governments like Canada slash spending on foreign aid, aid agencies are increasingly looking for help from an unlikely quarter: the corporate sector.

By providing industry expertise and a different perspective, the private sector is able to create solutions to problems that often elude aid agencies, like Ikea-built housing in Iraq and tablet-based classrooms in refugee camps.

Better Shelter housing units created through a collaboration between the Ikea Foundation and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees offer temporary shelter at the Kawergosk refugee camp in Erbil, Iraq. (Erik Hagman/Ikea Foundation)
"For the humanitarian sector we already recognize that we can't innovate on our own," said Chris Earney, co-lead of innovation for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "We need the expertise and the resources that the private sector have to offer."

Not everyone sees these partnerships as success stories. Problems with connecting the vision of the partnerships to the field as well as the relatively small amount of funding mean there are reasons to question their effectiveness.

"Businesses have a role to play in the aid sector, just as all of us have a role to play in fixing problems in the world," said John Morrison, executive director of the Institute of Human Rights and Business in London. "The question becomes, what can they offer that others can't?"

Redesigning a place to call home

Issues as simple as housing have plagued refugee agencies like UNHCR for years. The tents used around the world in refugee camps are cramped, provide little protection from extreme temperatures and only last about six months.

Repeated attempts to reinvent refugee housing failed for one simple reason: cost. What tents lack in comfort they make up for with how easily they can be shipped. Any new housing solution would need to ship easily and cheaply.

The problem of cost plagued Johan Karlsson, a Swedish designer working on the problem. Then one day, while shopping at his local Ikea store, the solution came to him: if the units were flat packed, much like Ikea furniture is, transport costs would be significantly reduced.

After reaching out to the Ikea Foundation for help, Karlsson's idea became reality.

For the Ikea Foundation, which focuses mainly on improving the lives of children, improving refugee housing appeared to be a natural fit.

A Better Shelter prototype is assembled at the Hilawyen refugee camp in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia, in July 2013. (Erik Hagman/Ikea Foundation)
"There has to be something better than a tent in a camp as a place for a child to call home, as a place for a mother to raise her children," says Jonathan Spampinato, the Ikea Foundation's head of strategic planning. "That made us say, 'This is a great project for us.' "

By working with the Ikea Foundation, Karlsson's Refugee Housing Unit benefitted from their money, contacts and expertise in design and manufacturing. These are the types of resources humanitarian organizations often lack.

Now, after a two-year pilot project in Ethiopia and Iraq, UNHCR announced it will purchase 10,000 more "Better Shelter" units in 2015 for refugee camps in Iraq.

The new housing units fit up to five people and come with solar panels, built-in lighting and USB ports to power electronics, marking a significant step up from the canvas tents of old.

Finding new ways to connect

While the idea of the "Better Shelter" units came from someone not connected to the private sector or the aid community, sometimes solutions are developed directly at the request of aid agencies.

That's what happened when Télécoms San Frontières approached the Vodafone Foundation four years ago to build a "network in a box" for deployment following natural disasters such as the recent cyclone in Vanuatu and earthquake in Nepal.

A Nepalese man whose house was damaged in the April 2015 earthquake plays a flute in a temporary shelter made out of galvanized sheet in Bhaktapur. (Niranjan Shrestha/Associated Press)
That invention, a complete mobile network that comes in three simple boxes, has led to changes for the refugee community as well.

"As a humanitarian program, we are trying to reach the most vulnerable people," said Oisin Walton, the instant network roll-out manager for the Vodafone Foundation.

"After discussions with UNHCR on how we could better support them, we found that education was a key area we could contribute in."

The result is the Instant Network School Program, tablet-based classrooms in refugee camps where students and teachers can spend a few hours every day for an interactive education.

The program debuted at the Yeda refugee camp in South Sudan in 2013 and 16 classrooms are now up and running in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp in Kenya.

Over the next two years, UNHCR and the Vodafone Foundation hope to expand the program to 33 schools in these countries plus Tanzania, serving an estimated 60,000 refugee students.

Too ambitious to succeed?

Beyond finding new solutions, there is a clear need to find new sources of non-governmental funding as traditional aid champions like Canada focus more on domestic budget woes rather than foreign aid.

With Canada's foreign aid spending reaching its lowest levels as a percentage of gross domestic income since 2001, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and many other Western governments struggling to meet funding targets, aid agencies need workable alternatives.

But despite the promise of public-private partnerships, not everyone is convinced that they can deliver.

Syrian refugees look out of their tent at a temporary refugee camp in the eastern Lebanese town of Marj on May 20, 2013. (Associated Press)
Scaling and size are problems, said Steven Zyck, a research fellow focusing on humanitarian policy at the Overseas Development Institute in London.

"These things are negotiated at the headquarters level but you go out to the field and few people really know about them or how to draw upon them at the local level."

Zyck further points out that some corporations intentionally shy away from formal humanitarian partnerships, pointing out the alternative approach taken by Google who fears that formal co-operation could make engineers prey to faulty aid agency methods of problem-solving.

Google feels the distance helps with innovations such as the creation of the Google Person Finder, which became a standard part of crisis response since it debuted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The example gives pause to the idea that partnerships are the answer to humanitarian problems. Zyck notes that though there is renewed attention on the role corporations can play, their potential is often overstated.

"Business has never been in a position to fund humanitarian action on par with government and only makes up a small percentage of funding."


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