Private sector approaches to disaster relief

2018 has been a difficult year for many in Trinidad and Tobago, none more so than those affected by the flooding that turned many parts of the country into disaster zones. In times like these, we see the best of our people and of the private sector. Relief items pour into the affected communities and everywhere you look, people are doing their bit to help. But what if, with a bit of extra planning, the private sector could have an even greater impact? Well-managed companies may have their own business continuity plans, but far too often, they haven’t given much forethought to disaster relief efforts.

The private sector is uniquely positioned to contribute before disaster strikes (mitigation and preparedness), in the immediate aftermath of an event (response), and during prolonged rebuilding efforts (recovery). Companies can, for example, provide both financial and non-financial support (including employee volunteers), and create ad hoc partnerships with customers, suppliers and even competitors. Because the private sector sidesteps the bureaucracy typically associated with public sector grant processes, its actions buy time for government support and help establish long-term recovery and preparedness initiatives.

Here are a few practical steps that companies can take to enhance the impact of their disaster response activities:

  1. Maintain standing bodies such as disaster response or grants committees, which can quickly identify needs and determine appropriate action. Valuable time is often lost to administrative activities in the aftermath of a disaster. These bodies should meet regularly (perhaps quarterly), to consider how the company should respond in different situations and establish appropriate response mechanisms. Consider inviting external specialists to participate in these discussions to ensure informed decisions are made. These groups may also engage with affected communities and responding NGOs to understand their unmet needs and be clear on what has/has not worked in the aftermath of prior disasters. Use this information to inform your decisions.
  2. Enter into multi-year partnership arrangements with a small number of non-governmental and civil society organisations that are well versed in effective disaster response. This will save valuable time and help you avoid making uninformed decisions after the fact. Encourage such organisations to conduct assessments to identify their capacity gaps and needs. This will help indicate how your company can most effectively support their work over an extended period of time; enabling organisations to provide effective relief may be more impactful than providing the relief yourself. In addition to supporting proven organisations, direct some of your funding to smaller or under-resourced groups. Help them to build their capacity and encourage collaboration with larger NGOs. The end result will be an increase in the number of organisations that are well positioned to help in the event of disasters.
  3. Provide in-kind and pro bono support. While donations of goods are very common, the same cannot be said for services. For instance, banks could support those affected by delaying loan repayments, or mobile phone companies could provide free minutes and data.
  4. Provide volunteer opportunities for your staff that go beyond fundraising and food drives. Volunteering is more effective when staff provide hands-on support, whether general (e.g. cleaning, painting, packing hampers, delivering relief aid) or skilled (e.g. rebuilding/repairing damaged houses, helping small businesses to start over). Alternatively, staff could donate their vacation, sick or personal days by redirecting the cash value of their accrued time off to relief efforts. You could also set up a “time off bank” where employees can donate their personal days to any co-workers significantly affected by the disaster.
  5. Don’t rush to donate any and everything. Many people donate used clothes and toys in the aftermath of a disaster, but these may not be the items that are needed most. In fact, they often take up space and time, and end up in the landfill. Instead, find out what the need is first and then strive to meet it.

It’s not always possible to predict when the next disaster will strike, but it is possible to put processes in place to maximise the impact of your response. It takes some effort and conscious planning, but surely there is no more worthy cause.


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