It can be rather difficult to care about a large-scale crisis that storms across your newsfeed or TV screens. There are many reasons for this. The sheer volume of stories that we come in contact with can make us numb as our minds attempt to protect themselves from the pain of having to empathise. It could also be because our minds struggle to truly understand large numbers, making it easier for us to understand one person’s suffering than that of a thousand. Or sometimes, we simply don’t listen because we know it will make us feel bad. Besides, even if we did care, how much can we really do to change things? So diverse is our reaction to these crises! One question I often struggle with in this regard is: do these same scenarios apply to giant corporations too? What is the apt corporate response in such situations?
This article will focus on the response that corporations can and perhaps ought to have to a humanitarian crisis.
We all know what a humanitarian crisis is—plenty of suffering, pitiful conditions, and people dying. Sure, from a broad perspective, that is reasonably accurate. However, a slightly more nuanced understanding is needed to appreciate the role that corporations can play.
In addition to the natural disaster or war that causes the crisis, there are usually a whole host of other things that pile on the misery of already-battered people. So, imagine a backdrop of missiles and gunfire. And then consider other emergencies. There are hungry people and food shortages. Injured people find themselves facing a lack of healthcare. Others desperately seek normalcy amidst broken bridges and damaged roads. When these crises continue for longer, the question of jobs, income, education, and lack of other supplies becomes hugely important.
And all of this is with the aim of mere survival—not anything remotely like living and enjoying life.
Corporate response to the crisis in Ukraine
We have already covered various large companies’ responses to the Ukrainian crisis. The WHO Emergency Coordinator for the Ukrainian Refugee Response, Paul Spiegel, while acknowledging such a benevolent response, speaks about his experiences and raises some interesting points. He talks about how many organisations helped by sending in money and volunteers, opening their doors to refugees and helping to provide supplies and free transport for people. However, he gently questions why this was not the case with other crises—for example, Syria. Spiegel says that the Syrians working alongside him on this mission were astonished at the wave of support. They were stunned at how help was readily available for the Caucasian Christians of Europe. At the same time, the corporate world did not so easily extend aid to non-Europeans over the last few years.
Crises that received less attention
Let’s briefly examine a few other crises in the recent past and examine the corporate response to these situations.
Tigray and Ethiopia
Tigrayans, a people belonging to the Tigray region of Ethiopia, constitute a small percentage of the total population. However, it was a Tigrayan party that formed a strict government for many years.
In 2018, Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in a move that seemed to make all parties reasonably happy. He promoted his message of peace and reconciliation and began to increase press freedoms and release political prisoners. Most notably, he ended the war with Eritrea and earned the Nobel Peace Prize.
Things began to change as ethnic tensions continued to flare up. Finally, a significant development occurred when the pandemic caused the postponement of the general elections. Abiy’s opponents cried foul, and the Tigray region took it further by conducting their own polls. The government moved the military into Tigray, and a war began causing thousands to flee and displacing millions. The stories are terrible—war, civilian massacres, and rampant sexual violence. Starvation was used as a weapon as Tigrayans were being cut off from supplies and not allowed to grow food. The situation in Tigray was a humanitarian crisis as bad as any other.
Political battles sparked by the protests during the Arab Spring have resulted in a seven-year proxy war in Yemen, which began in 2015. Constant airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and a ‘land, sea, and air barrier’ that prevented supplies from getting in or out have caused a massive humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Millions of people depend on aid for food and basic supplies as there is seemingly no end to the conflict. While various groups vie for power and multiple countries jump to support them, the regular person with no desire for power bears the brunt of the crisis.
Another Nobel Peace Prize winner since fallen from grace, Aung San Suu Kyi, maintained that no form of ethnic cleansing was taking place in Rakhine, a state in Myanmar. The Rohingya are an Islamic ethnicity who have always been viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They have never been officially recognised as an ethnic group or as citizens in Myanmar.
After a Rohingya militant group, fed up with their treatment, went on the offensive, Myanmar’s military responded with the utmost brutality. The army burned villages, raped women, and killed thousands. Boats capsized as people tried to flee to safety. Many thousands who escaped Myanmar live in crowded camps in Bangladesh, unable to move forward and unwilling to return.
The corporate response
In my search for what large corporations such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Meta have done, I struggled to find anything of consequence. With the exception of Amazon providing nearly $250,000 and PPE to the Rohingya people during the pandemic, there was very little information to be found about any of the others. I admit these corporations and many others may have done plenty more, and the information is simply unavailable. However, is it wrong to expect a little more from them if they have not?
What corporations can do
There are many things that corporations can do to help people in crisis. This responsibility does not apply only to giant corporations but any. By focusing on what each one specialises in—technology, communications, delivery of supplies—the corporate response to humanitarian crises can create a significant impact.
Helping in these situations can build relationships for corporations, governments, and other organisations. It can expand their networks and markets too. So their contributions do not have to be solely out of goodwill.
Humanitarian crises do not end when the shooting stops or the flood waters recede. It takes years to rebuild before people can begin to have a sense of normalcy once again. There is always more that the world can do. Yet, at the end of the day, there is nothing to bind corporations or anybody to help people in need. We can but ask and then hope.