Mercy Corps CEO says focus on emergencies neglects chronic disasters

High-profile disasters like the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines serve as a powerful reminder of the need for the many humanitarian organizations out there - and also as a great marketing opportunity.

Mercy Corps DonateHigh-profile disasters like the devastation caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines serve as a powerful reminder of the need for the many humanitarian organizations out there – and also as a great marketing opportunity.

Go to the websites of CARE, Oxfam, World Vision, Mercy Corps or just about any of the thousands of such groups and chances are at the top you’ll see (as shown at right) a plea for donations in support of what the organization is doing for the disaster du jour.

“It’s wonderful to see the outpouring of support for this disaster, which is massive,” said Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps.

But the disaster donation pitch differs from another pitch frequently made by Keny-Guyer, who recently spoke in Seattle at the annual Global Washington gathering. He talked about the need for the humanitarian sector to move away from an emphasis on reactive and feel-good efforts toward a more sustainable and effective approach to reducing poverty and suffering.

Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO Mercy Corps
Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO Mercy Corps

“In the non-profit sector, if you can tell a good story that raises money you can continue to keep doing what you’ve always done even if it really isn’t having much of an impact,” Keny-Guyer said.

Even the U.S. military – to which all American taxpayers are required to donate – often regards these international disaster relief efforts as great for improving its image in regions where our bases are not always the most popular. As the New York Times noted, the US military has been having a hard sell seeking a bigger presence in the Philippines.

As this AP story notes, military strategists are well aware that relief efforts make them look good. Fox News is even more blunt in noting that part of the big relief effort in the Philippines is aimed at competing with China, for hearts and minds, and for demonstrating our technical superiority.

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The world is now legitimately focused on the immediate needs of the Philippines, Keny-Guyer said, but the biggest humanitarian crisis out there is receding from the headlines even as it grows worse.

“Syria today represents the world’s biggest and most complex humanitarian crisis,” he said. The conflict there has left more than 100,000 dead, forced millions to go on the run or become refugees on other countries. “The crisis there is just staggering and a failure to address it puts the entire region, if not the world, at risk.”

Mercy Corps, which was launched by an interesting combination of Quakers and Catholic social justice types, started out like many such humanitarian groups as a relief organization. Though no longer a faith-based organization, many still believe that itss primary activity is in responding to disasters. Mercy Corps still does disaster relief, but today most of its work is focused on long-term and often neglected crises – like Syria.

“That’s our largest effort right now,” Keny-Guyer said. As a Tennessean who cut his teeth on the civil rights movement, who went (as a young business major, in the 1970s) to work on the Thai-Cambodia border, in and around The Killing Fields, he eventually ended up working for Save the Children in some of Africa’s worst places and learned that being an effective humanitarian takes a lot more than just good intentions.

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“The answer to most humanitarian crises is often a political one,” Keny-Guyer said. Rather than chasing after disasters (which can happen even in rich countries, or middle-income ones like the Philippines), he thinks the non-profit, humanitarian sector should be focused on ‘fragile states’ or communities.

“These are people who live in places where poverty, conflict and poor governance all collide,” he said. The traditional approach to aid and development has had little impact on such places, Keny-Guyer contended, because the focus has often been on helping out with some immediate need as opposed to investing in community-led initiatives that strengthen the local people while also supporting broader economic, social and political improvements.

“You can’t get sustainable improvement unless you are building up local capacity, creating lasting economic development and connecting people to their government,” Keny-Guyer said. “The international community, especially the humanitarian sector, needs to be thinking more long term and in a more comprehensive way about how we fight poverty and inequity.”

There’s been a lot of criticism aimed at the aid community for the competitive – and often uncoordinated – race to rush into disasters. Beyond the desire to help, it’s also a critical opportunity to get the public’s attention. Many humanitarian organizations use disasters as the means to raise funds for the less-sexy and chronic problems they work on every day, 365 days a year.

Keny-Guyer isn’t encouraging us to turn away from helping (and donating) in disasters. What’s needed, he says, is a new approach, and a new narrative, that isn’t so dependent on the crisis du jour.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.