This paper analyses the role of the private sector in humanitarian action in Haiti, with a particular focus on the response to the devastating earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in 2010. During the response, international and Haitian businesses participated in humanitarian efforts – both directly assisting populations and working with aid agencies – for commercial and philanthropic reasons.
Numerous businesses provided goods, services and technical assistance to aid agencies through commercial and pro-bono arrangements and collaborated with humanitarian organisations on the design and implementation of interventions. Much of this private sector engagement revolved around cash transfer programming and mobile communication. Aid agencies, financial institutions and mobile network operators worked together to provide cash and vouchers, and text messaging was used to channel information from humanitarian agencies to people affected by disaster, as well as to solicit information from them on their needs.
Enabling factors and barriers
- Mutual benefits, favourable organisational culture and preparedness and early action all facilitated private sector and humanitarian engagement in Haiti. Cash transfer programming proved fertile ground for collaboration because banks and mobile phone companies had commercial incentives to facilitate payments, and aid agencies needed safe, accountable and wide-reaching cash and voucher distribution channels. However, organisational cultures that prioritise private sector engagement are the exception rather than the rule amongst aid agencies, and collaboration was only possible because individuals, companies and aid agencies stepped outside of their normal approaches and thought creatively about how businesses could support (and benefit from) humanitarian efforts, and vice-versa.
- Some aid agencies engaged individuals with private sector and market experience to work alongside emergency teams, and some businesses likewise sought out expertise from the non-profit sector to guide their pursuit of partnerships. Mistrust and different ways of working are barriers to engagement. Particularly after the earthquake, aid agencies were viewed by businesses as operating with insufficient coordination amongst themselves and with the government. Uncoordinated requests from aid agencies to businesses, and a tendency to appeal to businesses’ philanthropic rather than commercial instincts, impeded collaboration.
- Aid agencies were viewed as damaging local businesses and service providers by handing out free goods and services. For their part, aid agencies have their own suspicions about the private sector, and there are tensions between the approaches and principles of humanitarian agencies and businesses, and between the short-term priority to provide emergency relief and longer-term efforts to support the local economy.
Practical options and looking forward
Recent experience in Haiti shows that humanitarian and private sector engagement offers the potential for increasing financial resources, accessing technical capacity and supporting the local economy. Several aid agencies and businesses utilised the flexibility of the humanitarian and business environments to take new approaches to humanitarian assistance in Haiti. Practical opportunities for furthering humanitarian and private sector engagement in Haiti include:
- Support disaster preparedness and response measures with mobile network operators, with a view to promoting a more effective and coordinated approach to using mobile platforms in disaster response.
- Increase cash-based responses and work with the government, financial service providers, mobile phone companies and aid agencies to develop a contingency plan for providing cash transfers at scale in future disaster responses.
- Promote local procurement by aid agencies and facilitate the inclusion of small and medium-sized enterprises.