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7 ways global business could help us to tackle the UN’s humanitarian cash shortage

On 29th September, the G7 group and four Gulf nations pledged $1.8bn to UN aid agencies supporting Syrian refugees. But as the Syrian refugee crisis deepens, it is becoming increasingly evident that this is not enough to salvage the UN humanitarian agencies, described recently as ‘broke’ by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. It is time to ask: what is the contribution of businesses, especially large global companies, towards the problem? First of all, let’s think about some numbers. The Guardian reports that UN funding has fallen 10% and its humanitarian agencies are on the verge of bankruptcy. The global humanitarian budget stood at $19.5bn, now increasing to $21.3bn with receipt of the pledge. The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) needs $465m to keep feeding some 4 million people affected by the crisis, with $255 million supporting the region and $210 million supporting Syria itself. Since last year the WFP has been short of money and its monthly spend per refugee has been reduced from $27 to $13.5. As the $465m required describes a six month period, let’s call that shortfall $1bn a year. Lebanon has a population of two million and it now has more than 1.5 million refugees in the country. In January, Apple posted a quarterly profit of $18bn – ten times the G7-Gulf pledge – boosting its net cash reserves to $142bn. So the entire budget for UN humanitarian relief is about the same as the profits made in one quarter by the world’s most profitable company! The conspicuousness of the numbers are made all the more striking when we consider that Steve Jobs’ father was – wait for it – a migrant from Syria! Assuming a conservative figure of $65bn annual profits, if the world’s largest company were to start donating just over 1.5% of its annual profits it could pay for the entire shortfall in the budget for refugee relief in and around Syria. Of course, I understand that companies need to reinvest profits – not give them away. This is just to give us a sense of scale. Take another example. In 2015 bonuses paid to bankers is likely to be in the order of £5bn – that would be since the Syrian refugee food crisis. So, if every UK banker were to give away 20% of her or his bonus that too could pay the entire shortfall. Now let’s turn from the numbers to the power of companies to be a force for good. A decade ago, before the financial crisis hit, Tomorrow’s Company worked with a group of global companies from across Asia, America and Europe. In a report published in 2007 together they concluded that: The world is undergoing a period of unprecedented change, characterised by a rising population, rapid economic growth, the spread of globalisation, pressure on the environment and continuing social, political and cultural divisions.  These changes represent challenges to the complex global system on which companies depend for their survival and success… The world population will continue to grow…Although parts of the world are celebrating and enjoying the consequences of rapid economic growth – prosperity, innovation, better health, longevity, education, freedom of choice and greater opportunity to travel – others are not benefiting. The same growth is leading to greatly increased pressure on resources and on the environment. Economic and social gaps are widening and cultural, national, ideological and religious divides remain deep enough to provoke terrorism and conflict. The continuing existence of extreme poverty and human rights abuses are both a threat to social and political stability and a matter of conscience. So these business leaders concluded that global businesses, individually and jointly, had a part to play working with governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and others to create stronger frameworks of law and regulation for the world’s markets at the same time as delivering practical solutions to global issues such as climate change, persistent poverty and human rights abuses. The Tomorrow’s Global Company report gave many examples of the way in which global companies acting individually or in conjunction with governments and civil society could help to make the world a better and safer place. While helping prepare this report I interviewed one of Bill Gates’ lieutenants – Jean Philippe Courtois, then in charge of most of the company’s operations outside the US, based in Paris. He gave me the example of the Kosovo refugee crisis. Some of his employees from the region urged him to help. He sent them to investigate. They came back reporting that the relief agencies had a database problem! They developed easy-to-use software that could help the UNHCR log and track people who had been expelled from their homes and their country, and help them get the identity papers they need to be allowed to return home. They found a solution that helped the humanitarian agencies – created future business for Microsoft!  That initiative laid the foundations for essential software that the UNHCR have been using ever since. According to Sue Adkins of Business in the Community, 90% of business and NGOs agreed that it is important for business to contribute to international disaster relief and 83% of businesses reported that international disaster relief contributed to more stable markets. So let’s start thinking about what large global companies can do. A hundred years ago 250,000 Belgians left their native land as a result of the First World War. We are told that Rowntree (now owned by Nestle), welcomed scores of them in York. Those refugees who were able to work were given employment in the chocolate factory, but most had to be supported by donations from Rowntree’s workers. Employees at the factory formed a council to manage and distribute resources until the end of hostilities. Factory workers cleared created space in the factory grounds for accommodation. Home economics students helped feed and look after them. Global companies can and are needed to be a force for good. So here are seven ideas to mobilise the power of business as a force for good:

  1. Apple, Google and other Silicon valley companies to approach the UN together to offer to create a new refugee database in which the skills and aspirations of those in the refugee camps could be better matched with the skill shortages and offers of hospitality from companies and countries

  2. The same companies together donate 5% of their profits to the UN humanitarian effort – or equivalent – for each of the next five years, creating a snowball effect where competitors can’t be seen to be left out.

  3. Major companies each offer to take on two or three working age refugees at each large location and with local authority help, accommodate their families.

  4. A voluntary pledge led by bankers, fund managers and others enjoying large bonuses to fund and refinance the UN’s humanitarian agencies.

  5. National chambers of commerce in each country approach their government with their members combined list of skill shortages and training opportunities that they might be willing to offer to Syrian refugees.

  6. Building on this co-operation a combined effort by the world’s leading food companies to channel food though national refugee and relief agencies working in concert with the UN, to supply and deliver food to the world’s trouble spots. 71% of business reported that they could be more for international disaster relief and 61% of business reported that their organisation could be better prepared in their response to international disasters – But it isn’t enough to act in isolation. Governments cannot do it on their own; businesses cannot; civil society and individuals cannot. What we need is a framework of collaboration where we can all contribute. ‘G7, Gulf states pledge US$1.8bn for UN refugee aid’, Channel NewsAsia (30 September 2015), Harriet Grant, ‘UN agencies ‘broke and failing’ in face of ever-growing refugee crisis’, The Guardian (6 September 2015), Grant (2015). World Food Programme, ‘Syria Emergency’ (2015), ‘WFP to WFP to cut food vouchers for Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon’, The Guardian (9 July 2015), Tomorrow’s Company, Tomorrow’s Global Company: challenges and choices (June 2007), Sue Adkins, ‘How businesses are stepping up to the challenge of responding to international disasters’, BITC(8 July 2015), Nestlé, ‘Remembering Our Belgian Refugees’,

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