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Gerson Brandão

Senior Disaster Recovery Advisor, Ph.D Researcher

In the last few years, a lot has been discussed on the engagement of private companies in humanitarian aid. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) has signed agreements with German mail services DHL and the Swedish telecom Eriksson meanwhile, some UN agencies such as UNICEF have traditionally been relying on private funds to meet its ever-growing needs to protect children worldwide. Nevertheless, in places where financial resources are needed the most, in some of the worst humanitarian crisis of our days, there is a disturbing lack of vision to attract private funds to support Humanitarian Response Funds (HRP) and country-specific funding appeals.

The 2019’s HRP of the Democratic Republic of Congo, underfunded at more than 55%, has received less than 2% from private donors, and yet, not a single conference was organized in-country, by the United Nations Country Team (UNCT), to raise awareness on the pressing needs that humanitarian organizations were trying to meet. Despite the annual meetings between the Secretary-General and private companies, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. UNCTs are still in need of inspiration to replicate the “UN—Private Companies talks” in countries where it is also required. Thus, this paper aims to look at how to try to shift the underfunding paradigm seen today.

More than 20 years ago now, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, while attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, quite eloquently urged private companies to join hands with the United Nations (UN, 1999). He went on stating that: “whether in peacekeeping, setting technical standards, or providing much-needed assistance to developing countries—without businesses’ know-how and resources, many of the objectives of the United Nations would remain elusive.” Being pragmatic and visionary at the same time, the former Secretary-General anticipated that humanitarian crisis would unfortunately only increase in the years following his participation in the rich men’s club. The call on businesses from Kofi Annan gave birth to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), which remains the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative as of today, with more than 12.000 signatories—amongst businesses, civil society organizations and academia—in over than 160 countries [1].

Given the undeniable role that private companies can play in mitigating, preparing, responding, or yet recovering from disasters, the UN Global Compact has developed into a powerful platform. Still, moving from a success in New York, where the Secretary-General hosts a yearly UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit, to places where businesses engagement is needed the most, remains a challenge that makes a question around what is the real impact of the UNGC?

This can particularly be the case when assessing the dauting needs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), from providing funding to ensuring the respect for environmental and labor standards to influence decision-making in the country. The United Nations Country Team (UNCT) in the DRC should not only consider private companies as a major partner but also ensure a strong strategy to reach out, in a coordinated manner, to the key businesses operating in the country, such as oil & mining, telecommunications and banking.

Despite its vast natural resources, the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the poorest countries on the planet. Endless conflicts in the eastern part of the country, food insecurity, extreme poverty, economic crisis, epidemic outbreaks are all factors that negatively impact the social situation and the well-being of Congolese people, particularly women and children. Beyond the challenges of long-term development, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated further in recent years. Some 19.6 million people are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance across the country (OCHA, 2021), including 11.5 million children.

Traditionally, such UN agencies as UNICEF and the World Food Programme have been working with businesses as key partners. One initiative to be highlighted was the call by UNICEF to private companies to support the Covid-19 response in the DRC. In the early days of the pandemic, UNICEF had called on the private sector to support the initiatives of making reusable masks and printing exercise books for primary and secondary school students. In June 2020, the Congolese Enterprises Federation (FEC), whose role is to uphold, advise on and promote the interests of companies, committed to accompany UNICEF and the Government of DRC in the fight against the coronavirus (UNICEF, 2020). Hence, assisting to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the poorest families. Also, a number of telephone operators have committed to fight the coronavirus by facilitating the implementation of toll-free numbers that allows communities to ask questions on the pandemic and get answers in real time.

Although all of the initiatives highlighted above are highly commendable, the Humanitarian Response Plan—which is the key coordination document outlining the required response to the most pressing needs in the country—remains largely unfunded. The 2021’s HRP was funded at 32.5% (with less than 0,2% provided by private companies!). Therefore, the question remains on why the Office of the Humanitarian Coordination, on behalf of the UNCT, cannot engage the businesses in a coordinated manner as well as in line of setting-up a partnership to meet the different humanitarian needs outlined in the HRP?

Humanitarian Crisis and Opportunities

Humanitarian workers and organizations alike tacitly portrait themselves as being entities and individuals dotted with higher moral values.

The humanitarian marketing that is seen on the streets of many Western capitals, through the distribution of leaflets or end-of-the-year fundraising campaigns, typically presents the industry as unsung heroes who will go to the most inhospitable places on earth to reach people who are having their most basic rights violated and help them in a highly principled, uncompromised, and professional way that responds to need alone and is immune to any undue pressure or constraints. And all of these, apparently, in a way that offers traditional donors, mostly countries from the West, great value for money (Slim, 2019).

This subconscious heroism aligned with psychological pressure to perform very often under extremely trying circumstances may have alienated humanitarian workers and several humanitarian organizations altogether from individuals and entities equally capable to contribute to the daily struggle of saving lives and alleviate suffering.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world (KPMG, 2014, page 4). Mining has a share of more than 20 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). It is extracted both industrially and in an artisanal way, and the mining industry is rightly regarded as the central economic factor for the country. 55,16% of total government revenues, 99,3% of total exports and a quarter of total employment are derived from this area (EITI, 2021). However, so far growth and revenues have not led to a tangible reduction of extreme poverty in the country. Therefore, aiming to contribute to the reduction of inequity in the DRC, the German government has been particularly active in support of private companies, especially in the mining sector in meeting its corporate social responsibilities (GIZ, nd). A project implemented by the German GIZ—Corporation for International Development (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH), since 2007, among other objectives aims to improve cooperation between private sector, state and civil society while building the capacities and skills of civil society for the transparent and environmentally friendly management of the mining sector (GIZ, nd). Although cooperation among the key stakeholders in the mining sector is widely characterized by mutual mistrust between the different players, the project has managed to achieve some tangible successes with the development of local guidelines for Corporate Social Responsibilities while the project also succeeded in creating a multistakeholder platform, the IDAK [2] (Durable Investments in Katanga), for dialogue in the mining rich region of Katanga. This platform aims to find solutions for problems linked with the mining sector while also working on the identification of common issues in the mining areas.

Instances such as the IDAK, or the GIZ altogether, can be used by humanitarian actors to engage in dialogue with the mining companies. As stated above, this industry carries an important weight in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where besides its financial significance, the industry has the power to contribute to development projects bringing the needed meaningful change that humanitarians aspire to. However, despite the challenges to mobilize financial resources, in addition to the need to bring more actors to the table to boost advocacy efforts the UNCT year after year fail with the idea that every crisis can be used as an opportunity to do something new. Lack of vision or mistrust? Probably both, the reality is that for private companies, in interviews conducted by the author (during a field-visit to the city of Lubumbashi, capital of the Katanga region), indicated that humanitarians are perceived among mining companies as amateurs who bypass the government and do not possess the required means to bring long-lasting solutions, while humanitarians tend to frame businesses as avaricious entities solely concerned with financial benefits.

“Trust in humanitarian action is also about money and behavior”, wrote the head of Humanitarian Diplomacy of the International Committee of the Red Cross Hugo Slim (2019), with trust, or the lack of it, becoming an increasingly prominent issue in public life (Kohn, 2008). Individuals self-regarded as saviors should strive to break the silos instead of contributing to divisions that weaken a task that cannot be anyway achieved by any organization alone. It doesn’t matter if UNICEF manages to mobilize millions of dollars from mobile phone operators (Ecofin 2021), as at the end of the day, the remaining needs, which have not been addressed by the specific mandate and capacities of one organization, will continue to cause suffering to the population that was supposed to be assisted in a coordinated and principled way by the broader humanitarian community.

Do we trust corporations? Pragmatism vs Fundamentalism

Humanitarian responses often involve large numbers of national and international actors who frequently work in the same geographical areas and broadly aims to the same goals. However, coordination and collaboration among them are often limited at best and the lack of coordination and collaboration is also related to competition where just too often, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), and the different offices and agencies of the United Nations end up trying to get funds from the same donors.

Globally, the State of the Humanitarian System Report (2018) indicated that private funding grew by 30%, while institutional funding increased by 21% on a period from 2013 to 2017. However, volumes of private funding vary year-on-year, with high-profile sudden-onset crises seemingly driving larger volumes. There was an exceptionally high level of private giving in 2015, possibly in response to highly visible crisis, that attract the public views such as the Nepal Earthquake or yet the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Nevertheless, the growth in private funding was far from enough to significantly change the balance between private and institutional funding as proportions of the total (ALNAP, 2018).

The same report highlighted that institutional funding derived from traditional—Western—donors. Financial resources from governments and EU institutions continued to form the largest chunk of humanitarian funding. Overall, institutional contributions make up 76% of the 2017 total, 77% in 2016 and 73% in 2015. The largest 20 donors provided 96% of the institutional total in 2017, the same proportion as at the start of 2015. Contributions from the three largest donors (the US, Germany and the UK) increased from 53% of total international humanitarian assistance in 2015 to 59% in 2017, representing a further concentration of donors providing the lion’s share of contributions (ALNAP, 2018). The period 2015–2017 saw both the highest ever numbers of people in need and the highest ever expenditure on international humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, and as it is still the case nowadays, funding to adequately meet humanitarian needs remains largely insufficient even before the Covid-19 pandemic and yet, there is a lack of strategy in places like the DRC to attract new donors, to find new sources of funding, to build new partnerships to act together to assist and protect people in need of aid.

Bearing in mind the resources mobilization challenges The Connecting Business Initiative [3] (CBi), was launched during the first World Humanitarian Summit in May 2016, in Istanbul—much like the UN Global Compact presented at the World Economic Forum by former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in Davos in 1999. The CBi is an ambitious initiative aiming to take forward not only the Humanitarian Summit outcomes, but also the 2030 Development Agenda and its Development Goals in addition to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction!

Globally, the initiative can be perceived as a success. In 2020, the CBi supported 17 private sector networks around the world in strategically engaging the private sector in disaster management. These networks reached a combined membership of 4,100 companies, and they have access to more than 40,000 micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises. All CBi member networks responded to Covid-19 and, in addition, nine networks responded to 19 other emergencies, including conflict, drought, earthquakes, fire, flooding, tropical storms and a volcanic eruption. In addition, networks worked on disaster preparedness and resilience. They reached 15.5 million people through crisis response activities and raised US$42.2 million (OCHA, 2021).

Nevertheless, the Humanitarian Response Plan of what should be one of the top priorities of the international communities remains largely underfunded. The human costs of the ongoing crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo are enormous and are disproportionately borne by women and children, whose homes have been pillaged and burned by rebels and also by the Congolese army, which was supposed to protect them. Children who are not in school may benefit from the UNICEF partnership with mobile phone operators, but they remain vulnerable to soldier recruitment. Therefore, isolated action is far from being enough, while traditional funding is insufficient to cover the needs for global initiatives to be translated into local solutions, which remains the challenge to be addressed by the humanitarian community, whose members need to be more pragmatic.


The number and breadth of businesses involved in the aid industry is growing, following a similar boom in private sector engagement with development related initiatives, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, the pace of change is rather slow, and a host of barriers—sometimes put in by humanitarian organizations themselves—stand in the way.

It is indeed possible, and urgent to bring private companies to the Humanitarian Table. Not only for much needed funds but also as a means of support to the broader advocacy agenda. Businesses are important actors, by virtue of their presence in a given country, and large corporations can catch the ears of government officials. The same government officials that humanitarians at the other hand just too often are trying to influence, with no avail.

If the World Economic Forum’s mission statement can somehow serve as a source of inspiration, it goes as: progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change [4] …

Therefore, there may be time for humanitarians to believe that principles and decency are nobody’s hallmark. Meanwhile, those sitting in New York, Geneva and other decision-making cities need to ensure that global initiatives are felt in the places where they are needed the most. Coordination and effective communication between “field and HQ” have never been as important. The broken links between colleagues and different stakeholders need to be fixed right away.

As the world is trying to recover from a pandemic, long-term problems cannot be neglected; instead, all of those issues need to be addressed at the same time. Therefore, in addition to mutual trust, there is demand for an undoubted commitment to do things differently, as dealing with known concerns with the usual actors have largely proved insufficient.


Agence EcoFin (2021) Airtel Africa signe un accord de 57 millions $ avec Unicef pour connecter les écoles à Internet dans 13 pays d'Afrique accessed Airtel Africa signe un accord de 57 millions $ avec Unicef pour connecter les écoles à Internet dans 13 pays d'Afrique ( seen on 1 November 2021

ALNAP (2018) The State of the Humanitarian System. ALNAP Study. London: ALNAP/ODI. ISBN 978-1-910454-74-9

EITI (2021), Democratic Republic of Congo—Overview accessed Democratic Republic of Congo | Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative ( seen on 30 October 2021

GIZ (nd), Développement économique durable dans le secteur minier accessed Développement économique durable dans le secteur minier ( seen on 30 October 2021

Kohn, M (2008), Trust: Self-interest and the common good, ISBN 0191578703, 9780191578700 (pag. 5)

OCHA (2021), Humanitarian Response Plan accessed Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) | OCHA ( seen on 27 October 2021

OCHA (2021) Engagement with the private sector accessed Engagement with the Private Sector | OCHA ( seen on 1 November 2021

KPMG (2014) Democratic Republic of Congo—country mining guide accessed Democratic Republic of Congo ( seen on 27 October 2021

Saldinger, A (2016), Where is the private sector in humanitarian response? Accessed Where is the private sector in humanitarian response? | Devex seen on 30 October 2021

Slim, Hugo (2019), Trust me—I’m a humanitarian accessed Trust Me - I’m a Humanitarian - Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog | Humanitarian Law & Policy Blog ( seen on 30 October 2021

UN (1999), Kofi Annan's address to World Economic Forum in Davos accessed Kofi Annan's address to World Economic Forum in Davos | United Nations Secretary-General seen on 29 September 2021

UNICEF (2020), Fédération des Entreprises du Congo supports UNICEF in the fight against coronavirus accessed Fédération des Entreprises du Congo supports UNICEF in the fight against coronavirus seen on 27 October 2021

1. Participation | UN Global Compact


3. Home | Connecting Business initiative

4. Our Mission | World Economic Forum (

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