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Can Business Help? Partnership and Responsibilities in Humanitarian Work

News and Press Release
Originally published
Lecture by Mrs Sadako Ogata, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the "Martedisera" Speech Series of the Corporate Union of Turin
"Can Business Help? Partnership and Responsibilities in Humanitarian Work"
Turin, Italy, 30 November 1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish to warmly thank those who have contributed to organise this conference - in particular Mr Devalle of the Unione Industriale Torino, Mr Chiusano of IDE, and Mr Riotta of "La Stampa". Let me also thank the Italian Group of the Trilateral Commission- an institution which has supported us for many years. I am very grateful to its Treasurer, Mr Vellano, who has inspired this event.

In Italy, I think, many people still believe in what I would call person-to-person solidarity. I hope you appreciate how important and how valuable this is. I certainly do. And I am not just talking of principles. I am talking about real solidarity. I remember meeting many Italian volunteers - NGOs, parish associations, or simply groups of individuals- driving relief convoys to help communities in Croatia and Bosnia, or starting grassroots projects among them. During the Kosovo crisis, which brought the realities of a refugee tragedy even closer to Italians, my organisation received more than 25 billion lire from non-government contributions in Italy- well over twice what the Italian government gives UNHCR every year. Much of this comes from the general public: this year alone we have received over 200,000 individual contributions! Today UNHCR raises more funds from non-government sources in Italy than in any country in the world, and of course the Italian public contributes as largely to the Red Cross, Caritas and other NGOs, and other UN agencies like UNICEF.

Cooperation with the non-government sector has obviously a lot of potential in Italy. Tonight, therefore, I will speak about working together- you, business people, and we, humanitarian organisations. Is there room, and is there a rationale for business to cooperate more closely with humanitarian agencies? I think the answer is clearly yes. This support, however, should not be simply a contribution to a good cause. Nor should it be a convenient image booster for companies that want to "look good". Supporting humanitarian programmes is much more than this. Supporters become stakeholders in activities on which depend the lives of many people, and adhere to a set of values with people at their centre. In short, supporters must accept responsibilities.

The case of refugees offers a good example. Let me introduce, first of all, the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the United Nations refugee agency. Our work started almost fifty years ago, in December 1950, when the UN General Assembly voted a resolution to set up UNHCR. From a small office- with a staff of 23 and a budget of less than five million dollars- UNHCR has grown into a global organisation which employs over four thousand people and whose yearly budget, since 1992, has constantly exceeded one billion US dollars. This growth, however, is not positive- as it would be for a business, for example! UNHCR is a problem-solving organisation: to still exist, and in a much bigger way, after almost fifty years, indicates that the problem persists. Twenty years ago, we dealt with 2.5 million refugees. Today, we care for 21 million refugees, returnees and other uprooted people.

Just to give you some examples, 20 to 30% of the population of Afghanistan- three million people- live in exile in neighbouring countries. In the former Yugoslavia, well over 1.5 million people continue to live away from their homes. One quarter of the entire population of Rwanda has recently returned from exile.

Sometimes, huge logistical means must be mobilized to bring assistance to refugees or returnees- many of you will remember the airlift which kept the city of Sarajevo alive for three years during the war; or another airlift, which brought emergency assistance to a cholera-stricken population of one million Rwandans in the Congolese city of Goma. And large-scale emergencies do not seem to end. This year alone, we had to deal with the rapid exodus, and the even quicker repatriation of one million Kosovars; in Indonesia, with the plight of 200,000 East Timorese forced by militia harassment and violence to abandon their homes; and, very recently, in Russia, with over 200,000 Chechnyans fleeing military action in their autonomous republic.

But UNHCR's core mission-- to ensure the protection of people who flee because they are threatened by persecution, discrimination or violence, and to find solutions to their plight, has not changed.

Refugees are a global responsibility. As we say in our jargon, it is a "mandated" responsibility, in the sense that the international community has entrusted UNHCR- through a system of legal conventions and accepted practices- with the custody of refugee protection. UNHCR's mission is therefore neither optional, nor selective. It is not even simply "humanitarian", since it concerns a very specific set of people, with very specific needs. It is a mission that must be carried out wherever and whenever refugees need protection and assistance.

However, we cannot work alone. We need partners. This is well understood by non-governmental organisations, with whom we have developed a complex system of cooperation. This, I would like to propose tonight, must also be true for newly emerging partners. We must define, better than we have ever done before, how they, and business in particular, have a stake in humanitarian responsibilities.

Governments, business and humanitarians have a common goal: meeting the needs of people. Governments are interested in people as citizens. Business focuses on people as shareholders, customers or employees. Humanitarian agencies are concerned by the plight of victims of war, the poor, refugees. We look at people from different perspectives, but the dynamics of our relationships can boost everybody's ability to deal more effectively with people, and to fulfil respective responsibilities.

I would like to insist in particular on the idea that business focuses on people. Flip through any magazine. Or watch commercials on TV. Most company ads insist that their business is about people- "we care for people", "our work is about people". Of course, some of this is rhetoric- flattering people, making them feel that they are not exploited. But it is also profoundly true that business- especially today, in an increasingly deregulated and globalized world- must make people feel that they matter; not only in slogans, but also in reality. Business is about profit- but then, profit, of course, and increasingly so, is about people.

An agency working in some of the most remote, inhospitable and dangerous parts of the world, such as UNHCR, often finds itself on the ground in close contact with the staff of business companies. The immediate purpose of our presence is not the same, but being there creates a common proximity with deprived and suffering people. In many places, I have seen this proximity prompting companies to share and support our efforts. Back in the 70s and 80s, companies helped us rescue Vietnamese boat people on oil rigs in the Gulf of Thailand; during the Rwandan exodus, in 1994, a construction company helped us build refugee camps and access roads in Tanzania; in Azerbaijan, crucial support in giving shelter to hundreds of thousands of refugees and internally displaced has been provided by companies established in the country to develop its energy resources- not least among them ENI, the Italian oil company, that through AGIP has pledged a very important contribution, of unprecedented size for a European company, for a project in support of refugees and the internally displaced in Azerbaijan. And I could continue.

One may say that these were generous gestures, prompted by the sight of suffering- and indeed, they were. In this sense, they were truly "humanitarian". But business, by nature, wishes people not to be poor, not to be deprived, not to be excluded. Business wants prosperity and inclusiveness- it cannot thrive otherwise. Business wants people to be secure- insecure people are bad clients. And could humanitarian agencies- could the UN refugee agency- wish anything but a prosperous and secure world? In short, business also has an interest in contributing to humanitarian causes- to use a fashionable term, in doing "cause-related marketing".

Let me continue with the example of refugees. Resolving refugee problems contributes to stability, which in turn opens up possibilities for economic development, and ultimately prosperity. Supporting reconstruction programmes is as important- if not more- as contributing to emergency situations. If there is no reconstruction, emergencies will occur again. This sounds pretty obvious. And yet, it is easier to obtain aid for emergencies, especially when they are highly visible on TV screens, than for longer-term reconstruction. Kosovo is a case in point. As the American journalist Flora Lewis wrote a few days ago, in Kosovo we paid for the bombs (and, let me add, for the food and tents and medicines during the emergency) but we do not want to pay for teachers' salaries in the re-opened schools. This is worrying.

I am sharing these concerns with you because business, like all of us, has much to gain from turning the negative spiral of conflict, forced population movements, and poverty, into a positive one of ending conflicts and achieving sustainable peace through rehabilitation and development. Business has more to gain from what- for lack of a better word- I will call "sustainable" profit, that can establish the ground for longer term prosperity. Once again, these are the same goals as ours. Once again, our shared desire to secure the lives of people, and to improve the livelihood of their communities, provide us with crucial common ground.

Different, complementary responsibilities

As I said at the beginning, I believe that supporting humanitarian work is not simply a "donation"- much as the gesture in itself is important and valuable. We must also abandon the idea of humanitarian work as a purely charitable activity in which those who have, help those who have the least. This is not a wrong perception, but there is more to it. Humanitarian work, and even more so refugee work, are based on a system of responsibilities. Providing support to refugee programmes means, for business, that it accepts to participate as a partner in this complex but crucial system. Let me explain.

First, I am referring to the responsibilities of states. Once again, the case of refugees is a good example. Over 90% of UNHCR's resources are provided by governments. This is not just a matter of funding. It also hopefully contributes to make governments feel more responsible for refugees. Protecting refugees is their responsibility. Granting asylum is the single most important action that any state can take on behalf of refugees. Therefore, in seeking support from non-government sectors, UNHCR wants to complement, not to substitute for government contributions, which, both in symbolic and concrete terms, mark the continued commitment of states to upholding refugee protection. At a time when refugee asylum is at risk in Europe- when refugees are seen more as a threat than as a group to be protected, it is important to enhance the sense of responsibility of states towards refugees.

Second, the responsibilities of humanitarian agencies. It is mostly taxpayers' money that we are accountable for. It is our responsibility to continuously seek ways to improve our effectiveness, striving to minimize costs and maximize benefits for refugees. It is not an easy task. In many countries, a handful of UNHCR field officers are in almost complete charge of coordinating basic services in refugee camps as big as tented cities. The contrast between our relatively few means and the highly organised, well equipped military teams that supported us throughout the Kosovo emergency prompted many- including in Italy- to criticize our ineffectiveness. I do not think that we were ineffective- we simply work differently. You must realize that humanitarian agencies operate in most countries with very few means- even less so than in the Balkans. The reality of humanitarian work is that we increasingly have to do more, with less. Therefore, although humanitarian agencies will never operate in the same way as business, we share the pressure to operate cost-effectively. Business is much more advanced than we are in responding to this pressure. It is an area in which we have much to learn from the corporate world, and in which the advice and support of business is invaluable. Let's talk about it.

Third, and not least, the responsibilities of business. The purpose of business is profit, which does not mean that this should be pursued at the expense of a broader vision of the social, political and- yes- human context in which business groups operate. Many are concerned that some business groups, unwittingly or not, may be contributing both to war and to human rights violations. It is very well known, for example, that some of the worst conflicts in Africa today- in Sierra Leone, in the two Congos, in Angola- are partly fueled by business groups with interests in natural resources: money received from selling oil, diamonds or wood, is used in turn to procure arms. Also, the manufacturing and sale of small arms and landmines contributes to wars that, in turn, produce refugees and other humanitarian catastrophes. And there are companies doing business with governments that violate the human rights of their own people- sometimes these companies even contribute to these violations, by further exploiting, as cheap labour, persecuted and repressed groups.

A spin-off effect of these practices is that it creates an atmosphere of suspicion around business/humanitarian relations. If we are to cooperate, we must address these problems squarely, and dispel all misunderstanding. We should seriously work together in trying to address, marginalize and ultimately avoid these dangerous practices.

What type of support can business provide?

I am often asked by business people- what do you exactly expect from us? I do not like this question. It gives the impression that we have shopping lists, which we expect business to respond to. Rather, we should work together to define what type of support business can provide to humanitarian and refugee programmes. I look at support much more as a partnership with the same objectives.

So, to respond to the question from the partnership perspective, let me indicate four areas of cooperation.

First, financial support. This is particularly important. Well over 90% of UNHCR's one billion dollar yearly budget, for example, is funded through voluntary contributions of governments. Therefore we have to constantly urge governments to provide adequate funding in a predictable manner, and through rapid and flexible procedures. On the other hand, business prefers to fund specific projects with a direct link to those who will benefit from them. "Cause-related marketing" understandably prefers causes related to its own field or location of work. I agree. We also do not want business to fund more than a minimum amount of administrative costs. "Institutional" support must continue to come from governments.

Second, support in equipment and services. This is the most exciting area of business/humanitarian cooperation, in which we can benefit most from sharing the know-how and resources of business, especially in the field of information technology and telecommunications- as crucial to humanitarian and refugee operations as they are to any other activity. Because of our limited resources, our access to state-of-the-art technology is also limited. In today's massive emergencies, UNHCR's traditional information, communication and refugee registration systems have come under incredible strain. This has provided us with a good opportunity to open up new areas of cooperation with business. In Kosovo, many companies were eager to help us address the movements of enormous masses of people. Microsoft and several computer companies, for example, helped us develop a system to register large numbers of refugees- a tool which we hope to improve and use in other situations.

Besides registration, there are other areas in which we must improve our technology. For example, information campaigns aimed at refugees about conditions in their own country are crucial to help them make up their mind about whether to stay where they are, or return home. And I could refer to other sectors, too- like logistics and transport, the single most expensive activity in any humanitarian operation; or shelter and housing, another crucial and very costly sector of operations.

The third area of cooperation is the promotion of awareness of refugee problems. Business can be extremely useful by helping us obtain broader and better access to the Internet, for example; by supporting advertising campaigns; and through the association of their employees to fund raising and awareness activities. The politicization of migration and refugee issues in both developed and developing countries, and also unfortunately in Italy and the European Union, leads to discrimination and racism. It would be extremely significant if businesses could support the improvement of the image of migrants and refugees, and show that they are not a threat, but rather that they make a contribution. UNHCR is already cooperating with some companies in this area- I should mention at least Benetton and Procter and Gamble. Next year, on the occasion of UNHCR's 50th anniversary, we will focus on refugees as "positive contributors" to their communities. In this spirit, we will launch a Refugee Education Endowment for which we hope to raise up to 50 million US dollars, including contributions from business and other non-government sources.

The last area is that of projects to provide direct support to uprooted or deprived people. There is a great variety of opportunities for cooperation in this area. We should pursue cooperation particularly in two fields, both oriented towards self-reliance: education and jobs. Here, I would like to make one concrete proposal.

Joblessness is nowadays one of the main reasons for the failure of promoting inter-communal reconciliation. UNHCR often find itself struggling to reintegrate returning refugees in communities that are profoundly divided- in which ethnic hatreds, exacerbated by conflicts, are far from being resolved. It is the case in Bosnia, where returns of minorities are still very limited. It is the case in Kosovo, where almost 200,000 ethnic Serbs have been forced to flee when the ethnic Albanians returned.

Employment is an area in which business has experience and expertise, and perhaps, in some cases, economic interest. So, why not launch together an initiative that we could call "Jobs for Coexistence"? Why not explore together the possibility of creating jobs for a number of people in countries that have undergone severe inter-communal violence and link the project to inter-ethnic coexistence, by providing equal opportunities to members of different communities? I am aware that unemployment is not going to be resolved by finding jobs for a handful of particularly deprived people. However, do not underestimate the impact of- say- an inter-ethnic shoe factory! Any such project could be like a "seed" for the promotion of peace-building in areas of fragile peace, for the prevention of further refugee flows, and- ultimately- for the creation of an economically viable environment.

Why not initiate "Jobs for Coexistence" projects in Bosnia and Kosovo? I am interested in making this proposal in Italy, not only because of geographical proximity, but also because of the importance of small and medium companies in this country. Italy, of course, is very different from the Balkans. However, I believe that many Italian businesses can understand community-based problems and sustain community-based coexistence projects in that region, more effectively and more directly than large, somewhat "impersonal" multinational companies.

We- at UNHCR, and in the humanitarian community at large- are quite serious about working with business in all these areas. Let me add that UNHCR in particular is prepared to enter into what we call "stand-by arrangements" with companies, that could be activated in case of large emergencies, and through which resources can be made available, and more importantly, staff can be deployed to provide support in refugee operations. We are ready to talk with you on how we can make your available inputs of real service to refugee programmes.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

At all levels- in the financial, political, even personal sphere- we live in an era of experimentation in partnerships. We, the humanitarians, are facing this not only with business, but also, for example, with the military- as Kosovo has shown. We should not be frightened by new associations, even if the expertise, prior experiences, and respective languages are so different. Being new, these associations are most exciting. But as with any new terrain, exploration must be bold and careful at the same time.

This is what I have been trying to convey by focusing on "responsibilities" and not just on "support". Humanitarian organisations have much to benefit from business models and contributions, but this cooperation will also be of great benefit to businesses. Being partners in humanitarian activities will give business positive visibility. I do not think there is anything wrong with this, provided that it is done honestly and transparently. But there is more. In many companies, "cause-related marketing" often has a rallying effect on employees, thus improving team spirit, and a sense of belonging to a meaningful organisation. And of course helping people in areas in which they operate can also give business groups stronger roots in the local community.

Business today thrives on partnerships. Globalization means that business has never before been so dynamic in searching for synergies, as proven by the huge merger operations of the last few years. I represent here a very different world, in which partnerships are nevertheless as essential. And I am here to propose that you become partners in our endeavours to help people have better, safer lives. The challenges are immense. What you can offer us will be crucial to strengthen our capacity, especially in emergencies. What we can offer you is partnership in making profit- as I said- "sustainable"; in making profit accessible also to those who are as far away from profit as it is possible to be in today's world.

This city, Turin, is the symbol of the energy, creativity and resilience of Italian industry. At the same time, its business community has always been among the most forward-looking and visionary, in Italy and in Europe, in terms of social and cultural engagement. Nobody better than you can appreciate how important it is to make our partnership successful.

Thank you.