Testing humanitarian collaboration with the private sector in the Bay of Bengal

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As of 2014, 26 out of the 35 deadliest tropical cyclones in world history took place in the Bay of Bengal*. Myanmar, Bangladesh and India – including the coastal states of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu – are on a cyclone-prone belt that makes them particularly vulnerable to disaster, yet which includes major business centres. With their capacities, businesses can thus play a major role in building resilience.

Over the recent months, Chennai in Tamil Nadu, as well as areas in the state of Odisha, which all border the bay, have become a testing ground for collaborative disaster preparedness. Here, the Transforming Surge Capacity project has rolled out a pilot led by ActionAid India, testing ways in which the private sector can support vulnerable communities in areas that are frequently hit by cyclones. As a first step, the pilot project reviewed the best practices of private sector involvement in humanitarian response in the Bay of Bengal. Electronic company Siemens, for example, worked in Chennai’s vulnerable Coovum riverside area to break stereotypes around transgender women affected by the 2015 floods.

By helping to address their marginalisation, this case showed that private involvement has the potential to challenge traditional socio-economic statuses when disaster strikes. Other examples of good practice include the Indian tech company Infosys’s work building shelters for widows in Cuddalore, or MasterCard’s contribution to reviving tribal and fisher folks’ traditional livelihoods after the same 2015 Chennai floods. These practices show how businesses’ involvement in post-disaster response can challenge stereotypes and other vulnerabilities due to gender, caste, or socio-economic status.

Best practice collected by the pilot team highlighted positive examples of collaboration between civil society and private sector in the response to a disaster. Learning from the Transforming Surge Capacity project (for example a review of the 2015 Nepal earthquake response) found that collaboration across sectors, for example between civil society and private sector, tended to be much more successful in cases where partnerships had been established during the disaster preparedness phase. “DRR and resilience building is the need of the hour and this cannot be achieved if we do not intervene during normal or pre-disaster period,” says Debabrat Patra, Regional Manager at ActionAid India.

Building on this evidence, the pilot set out to explore how private businesses could support the preparedness of communities living in cyclone-prone areas. The pilot team visited 12 villages around the Ganjam district of Odisha, India, to review their Community Contingency Plans (CCP) with the aim of involving the private sector, along with the local government, at the preparedness stage. Companies were invited to discussions, allowing them to better understand the needs of these communities and find areas where they could get involved in the plans.

Impact and learning

With the leadership of women, vulnerable communities such as Dalits and persons with disabilities, and Panchayat Raj Institution members (the local self-governance), CCPs were able to build the 12 villages’ disaster preparedness in several ways. A housing scheme was drawn in Tarinipali, and 50% of previously thatched houses in the village were converted into concrete houses, increasing their disaster resilience. In Biripur, a cyclone shelter was also built near a Dalit hamlet, as this group is often the worst-affected by disaster. Finally, women were linked up to existing social security schemes, which was previously almost inaccessible to them.

Despite challenges in engaging with the private sector, reviewing these CCPs gave village leaders a great opportunity to refresh information on the population’s needs. For example, only recently has water scarcity hit the village of Badapali, thus the original CCP didn’t take this into consideration – until its recent overhaul. Since then, pipelines linked to government water tanks are addressing this issue.

Companies were willing to help with the implementation of CCPs, but it was more difficult to convince them to engage in the planning process, although the best practices previously gathered by the project point out to the importance and efficiency of the private sector’s involvement since the preparedness stage. Nonetheless, local women leaders, who were already leading the previous CCPs, contacted private companies to request their involvement. This uncovered other interesting challenges, such as some companies’ vested interest in exploiting the very disadvantaged groups that are leading CCPs, making it difficult to engage with them. Women also face a lack of information about big corporations, hampering their ability to easily contact them.

Engaging the private sector in emergency responses is therefore essential in promoting a culture of collaboration for effective surge, as is the aim of the Transforming Surge Capacity project. This could in turn learn to better social cohesion and solidarity among communities.

Next steps and recommendations

The next step is now to convince the private sector to get involved since the preparedness stage. When corporations are involved in needs assessments, this enables them to better understand the community’s vulnerabilities, and therefore better target their response. The pilot project recommends that human resources, in addition to financial resources, are involved as it ensures an emotional connection between businesses and communities. “Where corporations have engaged human resources, they connect much more to the project, and also get better a understanding of the needs,” says Debabrat. 

Indeed while the private sector traditionally provides financial support, there are many other ways it can contribute to emergency responses. For example local businesses, especially those with locally-suitable technology and indigenous knowledge, are the best placed to participate in local preparedness while, larger corporations like TATA and Siemens are present in different countries of the Bay of Bengal, such as Myanmar, Bangladesh or India, and could thus contribute to common preparedness plans, as the area faces similar disasters.

The private sector’s involvement since the start, not just after disaster risks, could then make a significant difference not only to the daily lives of vulnerable groups, but also to their resilience in the face of disaster. As the increase in intensity and frequency of disasters is strongly linked to climate change, both villages populations and businesses need to find sustainable solutions and build their capacities together.

Findings from the Transforming Surge Capacity project’s private sector pilot will thus be shared with consortium partners across three countries (India, Bangladesh and Myanmar), who are also invited to share good practice on the ways to engage with the private sector before, during, and after emergencies.

Find out more

A sharing workshop will take place on August 11 in Delhi, gathering corporations, NGOs, and INGOs of the Surge network in India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, to share all learning from the Transforming Surge Capacity’s private sector pilot.

For more information on the sharing workshop and how to attend, please contact Debabrat Patra, Regional Manager at ActionAid India.

*“Climate Vulnerability and Disaster Preparedness of Odisha: Lessons from the Cyclone Phailin,” Issues of India, 2014.

Find out about the event.

Read more about Transforming Surge Capacity.

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