‘When disaster strikes, business builds bridges’

Typhoons, earthquakes, flooding – natural disasters are increasing in frequency and scale. Sue Adkins, international director at Business in the Community, argues that business can play an important role in disaster relief. She tells us what businesses are doing to help NGOs, humanitarian aid agencies, governments and citizens when disaster strikes

Business has historically played a philanthropic role in the wake of a natural disaster, for example through donating cash, fundraising and match-funding employee contributions to relief efforts. This is a good start to supporting NGOs and communities after a disaster strikes, but a growing number of companies are now thinking more about the practical contributions that they can make on the ground in terms of skills, core competencies and assets, products and services.

The InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) turns hotels at the centre of disasters into hubs for aid agencies, offering shelter, supplies, meeting space and telecommunications support, in order to mobilise relief quickly. Through its programme Shelter in a Storm, IHG has delivered direct help to people affected by disasters in 28 countries, supported 18 humanitarian agencies, and has responded to 70 disasters, including the earthquake in Nepal and cyclone Pam in Vanuatu in 2015.

Key to making any business-led disaster relief programme effective is preparedness and laying the groundwork to enable swift action when a disaster strikes. IHG worked with CARE International to develop guidance in disaster preparedness and response, which has been rolled out to the hotel group’s 5,000 hotels. This ensures IHG hotels are embedded at the heart of the community, at the time it is in most need.

Some might argue that it is easy for global companies with large footprints and resources to respond to disasters so proactively. We are, however, also starting to see small business identifying unique ways to respond to disasters. One tiny Sierra Leone tech company, iDT Labs, had a huge impact on the Ebola crisis which hit West Africa in 2014.

Companies are now thinking more about the practical contributions that they can make on the ground

Ebola Response Workers (ERWs) worked on the frontline of the epidemic, transporting the sick, caring for patients, attending to the deceased and providing security and coordination. The payment systems for these emergency workers were ineffective, with unpaid wages threatening to bring the health system to a standstill.

Many of these workers were not included on national payroll or public sector registration systems and did not have national ID cards. Although funds were available, disorganisation and miscommunication meant that many workers went without pay for months. ERWs threatened to strike daily over non-payment or underpayment, and many reported duplicate payment and a huge lack of transparency, with government institutions spending vital hours on pay disputes rather than providing healthcare for the sick.

In a bid to resolve the stand-off, iDT Labs, with support from United Nations Development Programme, developed a payroll system which used mobile wallets, cloud computing and open source information management systems to pay some 30,000 ERWs on time. Resolving the pay issues effectively helped prevent the collapse of the healthcare system, and meant that health workers could concentrate solely on patient care.

Companies that are based in the area of the disaster are more likely to be able to help in a meaningful way and know what ‘in kind’ support they can offer.

Putting aside their day-to-day business to concentrate on a solution to this critical issue, iDT Labs developed their online payment system in two weeks. Partly because, as a tech company already operating in a very challenging country, they had a deep understanding of what would work and what wouldn’t. So effective has this system been that it has now been adopted by the Sierra Leone Health Ministry.

When typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines in 2013, an estimated 6,000 people were killed and an estimated four million had their homes and livelihoods destroyed. The majority of those affected were the poorest in society, the least resilient to disasters, with little or no ability to rebuild their lives alone.

Typhoon Haiyan’s destruction overwhelmed the government’s capacity to respond, and the private sector mobilised with a broad-based coalition of companies, many of whom were direct competitors to each other.

The Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company worked with partners to form the Philippine Disaster Resilience Fund to help victims by establishing livelihood programmes, rebuilding key infrastructure including schools and health centres, and housing in the stricken region. Thousands of people were directly supported with food, shelter, and the means to restore their livelihoods. The company restored telephone networks with improved fibre optic technology and provided free voice and data services to local government units, evacuation centres, and banks.

In extreme conditions, business is capable of delivering vital skills, core competencies, products and services to support and resource communities stricken by natural disasters or disease outbreak. These examples demonstrate that every business can play its part as a partner, not just a donor, and operate responsibly to make a difference, regardless of staff headcount or turnover.


The InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) is a member of Business in the Community. IHG, iDT Labs and The Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company are finalists in the Responsible Business Awards, which is administered by Business in the Community. The winners will be announced on Monday 11 July. Business in the Community is a business-led charity with a membership of more than 800 organisations, which helps businesses to tackle social issues.

Image: Aid arriving after the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Credit: CARE/Holly Frew