Risks and Opportunities in Crisis Situations

Increasingly, policy-makers and planners are inclined to look to the ‘private sector’ as a source for engaging in a range of activities that traditionally have been the responsibility of governments and international and non-governmental organisations. This trend is well established across a range of development services – from public utilities, to transport, to health, education and welfare provision. However, there is also a growing expectation that the private sector will play an ever more important role in humanitarian prevention, preparedness, response and recovery, including in conflict-affected situations.

To a significant degree, this is being driven by the increasingly apparent ‘humanitarian capacity challenge’ – the inability of the existing international humanitarian system to deal with the changing dimensions, dynamics and types of humanitarian crises – and a recognition that the skills, capacities and innovative practices of the private sector are needed to deal with the demands of increasingly complex humanitarian futures. In addition, changing global alignments and the growing political centrality of crises means that governments may be more willing to accommodate private sector engagement in humanitarian crises than ‘traditional’ bilateral or international humanitarian assistance.

The increased involvement of private sector actors in crisis situations, both conflict and disasters, poses both risks and opportunities for governments and civil-military actors who traditionally have the lead roles. Yet to date, there has not been sufficient research on the way in which these opportunities and challenges play out in operational settings and how the opportunities can be better harnessed to meet the capacity challenge for humanitarian action. What research there is has instead primarily focused on the role of the private sector in conflict-affected situations, particularly its role in post-conflict reconstruction.

In support of building a better understanding on the private sector’s engagement in and contribution to humanitarian action, the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP) completed a 12 month action research project (finishing August 2013), with support from the Australian Civil-Military Centre (ACMC). The Private Sector Challenge project was underpinned by two inter-related hypotheses, namely, that the types, dimensions and dynamics of humanitarian crises will continue to increase, in many instances exponentially, and that the present humanitarian system is overstretched and does not have the capacity to reduce their impacts or respond to their consequences.

The project intended to enhance the understanding of civil-military stakeholders –including government agencies, the aid community, and the military–of the private sector in crisis situations, including its form, roles, and trajectories of engagement.

Australian Civil-Military Centre (ACMC): ACMC was the donor of this project but also provided relevant contacts as well as guidance and feedback relating to research focus and methodology.

The project was also helped by an Advisory Board, composed of HFP contacts who work in this field, upon whom we draw upon for advice and feedback whenever possible.