Some Sniff Commercial 'Wolves' at WorldAid '96


Walking around the halls of Geneva's conference and convention center last week was like walking through a Far Side cartoon version of an L.L. Bean store. Products and slogans abound here at WorldAid '96 - from Disc-O-Bed, "the versatile answer for all emergency and disaster situations," to Foersater, "Your partner for mine detection and bomb location."

While more than 200 companies showed their stuff during this first-of-its-kind trade show for emergency and disaster-relief products, business and aid experts are debating how to work together.

"My colleagues in the UK said this is a trade fair and warned me not to go," says Michael Taylor, director of Britain-based Christian Aid. "They think that commercial wolves shouldn't be allowed to dress up in humanitarian clothing."

But Mr. Taylor disagrees. This kind of convention offers precisely the right atmosphere to talk about dealing with emergencies that have become more complicated and costly, he says.

In 1995, there were 30 ongoing wars and some 36 million refugees and internally displaced people. Disaster relief now costs about $500 billion a year, says Nick Cater, an emergency relief consultant from Britain. But while costs rise, total aid is falling. In 1995, the countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development contributed $53.7 billion to emergency relief, 9.3 percent less than 1994 and a 13.5 percent fall over three years.

As a result, businesses see an opportunity to build relationships in developing and war-torn regions by providing the kind of aid that many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), due to less funding, are increasingly unable to provide. For example, British Petroleum has paid for women's and children's programs and job training in Colombia, with the expectation of winning public support for their gas and oil projects in the region.

Disaster prevention, relief, and infrastructure development now constitutes an $8 billion-a-year market, says Odd Grann, secretary-general for Geneva-based World Aid. And that is why more than 45 aid agencies and 262 companies are here displaying their wares.

"We came here not just to sell, but primarily to educate," says Charles Fiala, director of operations of Brown & Root Services Corp., a $1 billion-a-year engineering and construction firm that builds refugee camps, power plants, water supply systems, and port and air terminal operations. "The private sector can offer an alternative and can augment the work of the NGOs."

Mr. Fiala says Brown & Root, a US-based firm that has worked in places from Somalia and Haiti to Rwanda and Bosnia, can help in nation-building by contributing to local economies through using local labor and infusing money into local economies. In addition, the commercial sector, which often must answer to shareholders, can be more efficient and cost-effective.

BUT some say the profit motive has no place in a refugee camp. "I take objection that large multinationals should think they can get involved in nation-building," says Julia Taft, president of InterAction, a Geneva-based independent relief agency. "NGOs often question large corporations like Brown & Root who took everything out when they left Somalia [when US troops left]. People who were paid were suddenly unemployed, and lots of infrastructure was taken out of the country."

So despite talk that WorldAid '96 is about and for the 300 million people hit by war and disaster each year, some remain skeptical. "The problem with commercial enterprises is to a large degree they want to come in with speed and leave quickly," says Maj. J.K. Michael, director of the India-based Churches' Auxiliary Relief Action. With more than 30 years of experience in a country where there are 60 to 70 natural disasters a year, Major Michael says his group knows efficiency. While his agency gets help from the commercial sector in procurement of goods, the collaboration should end there, he says.

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