The future of humanitarian aid will be partnership-based

The aim of humanitarian action has always been to deal with exceptional critical situations. But nowadays crises last for longer. Emergencies turn into permanent problems. Searching for expertise, skills and innovation in the private sector has become a must for major humanitarian organizations faced with more numerous, more complex and more long-standing challenges.
Published in the dossier of November 2017

Natural environment degradation and climate change are exacerbating the severity of droughts and associated famines and amplifying the violence of storms and floods. Rampant urbanization and the rapidly growing demographic in many developing countries are multiplying the dramatic consequences of these natural disasters, which directly affect 211 million people each year. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs1, this amounts to five times the number of victims of armed conflicts, even though this figure has seen no decline. Not forgetting the humanitarian consequences of certain countries’ inability to financially support their populations’ basic needs.

From emergencies to a perpetual state of emergency

It’s a fact: the boundary between an emergency verging on a permanent problem and development support is becoming increasingly porous. Humanitarian organizations are therefore having to reinvent themselves to deal with this new situation, over and above the question of ensuring long-term funding.

“Our priority is to be reactive,” highlights Michel- Olivier Lacharité, Logistics Director for Doctors Without Borders (MSF). “Response plans are changing and situations becoming more complex, which means that a more technical approach is required. Take the hospitals that we establish… There are major constraints involved in setting them up: the need to treat water, waste and air. This growing need for expertise involves partnerships, like the one we have with the Veolia foundation.”

Alongside the traditional governmental, intergovernmental and non-governmental players, companies and foundations are gradually making their mark on the humanitarian landscape. The Veolia foundation has formed multiple partnerships, notably with the French Red Cross, UNICEF and the UN Refugee Agency (United Nations), Doctors Without Borders and Solidarités International (see Alain Boinet's interview). Veolia’s core business lines of water, wastewater and waste management are all essential services for populations in times of crisis, when they are sorely lacking.

“Crises have become so much more violent that strengthened partnerships are key in order to meet the challenges. The time is past when everyone worked on their own. We have to share the emergency by relying on smaller, more mobile structures,” highlights Thierry Vandevelde, Executive Officer of the Veolia foundation.

Urban challenges and skills

NGOs are generally focused on community management or managing situations in a rural environment. However, with accelerating global urbanization, nowadays catastrophes are even more dramatic in regions where populations are concentrated. The skills-based partnership model is thus becoming indispensable, allowing NGOs to contemplate new, much more ambitious actions than those that they would be able to undertake alone,” analyzes Thierry Vandevelde.

Something that has struck a chord with Julien Temple, Head of UNICEF’s Office of Emergency Programs in Geneva: the intergovernmental institution has made the Veolia foundation one of its – rare – stand-by partners from the private sector.

So, far from merely providing financial support for its partners, the Veolia foundation is banking on an atypical partnership model that remains relatively underdeveloped, namely skills sharing:

“From the outset, we wanted to recognize the Group’s members of staff,” summarizes Thierry Vandevelde. “Thanks to their technical skills and on-the-ground knowledge, we have been able to strengthen our emergency and development missions. Our foundation is active.”

The Foundation relies on a network of volunteer staff, brought together in Veoliaforce, “which is perhaps not as powerful as an army in terms of numbers, but it’s an army of skills and expertise!” continues the Executive Officer.

A change of scale and new responses

On hand to ensure sanitary conditions after a disaster, such as after Hurricane Irma swept through the French West Indies, the Veolia foundation also meets its partners’ other needs: it is involved in research and innovation projects linked to the Group’s areas of expertise: energy, waste, wastewater, and drinking water. The aim is to test original procedures and new equipment in a humanitarian aid situation.

“We concentrate on areas where we deliver real added value,” states Thierry Vandevelde. “This strategy has won us international renown in certain domains, such as water-borne diseases.”


Within the framework of the Innovation partnership between the Veolia foundation and MSF, a pilot solar power supply project was conducted in Southern Chad to provide an independent and reliable energy supply to the malaria prevention and treatment center in Moïssala. In Western Kenya, where MSF is conducting an HIV prevention program, the Veolia foundation provides an Aquaforce 500, a mobile water treatment unit, to supply the health center. In 2016, the two partners worked on dehydrating latrines destined for camps in Uganda and South Sudan. With its long-standing partner the French Red Cross, the Foundation set off in April 2017 for a camp located between Erbil and Mosul with the aim of training Iraqi Red Crescent volunteers how to use water supply solutions in emergencies.

The partnership with MSF perfectly illustrates the recent changes observed in how humanitarian organizations operate: the two players are involved in the fight against cholera in the Kalemie region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in Uganda where they are rolling out and testing an emergency water treatment unit (Aquaforce 500) in refugee camps. In 2015, the two partners reached a milestone by committing to a vast research and action program. The Foundation thus provides MSF with mobile water treatment units and logistical assistance with treating waste. It supports pilot projects to optimize and reduce the energy footprint, turning in particular to solutions for producing renewable energy.

Working in the public interest

The Veolia foundation goes where the needs are, even if the Group is not active in the country. “We work in the public interest,” Thierry Vandevelde points out. “We therefore create a real sense of trust with our partners, including governmental agencies. They know that they can count on us, even and especially when everything is going wrong. These actions create positive press for the company given the coherence of our actions, which are closely linked to Veolia’s business lines.” From there, we are just a step away from confirming that traditional emergency response plans are obsolete. A step that Michel- Olivier Lacharité takes: “Even if our core activity is responding to the initial phases of emergencies, we must also consider more longterm solutions. It is important to innovate to find solutions capable of meeting new technical challenges, especially in an urban setting. This is even more important for an organization like MSF, for which acting professionally is a must. The partnership combining financial support and skills sharing allows us to be innovative on the ground.” This position is shared by Thierry Vandevelde: “In the light of the emergence of these huge-scale crises, the scale of the responses provided has changed: we need to become stronger and think strategically about our organization. Our technical patronage and responses on the ground are proving effective. It’s the right model to respond to humanitarian emergencies. And it’s also the right model for development aid.”

Humanitarian action and its funding

In late October 2017, the United Nations called for 23.6 billion dollars in funding to meet the needs of some 101.2 million people – out of 141.1 million waiting for assistance in 37 countries – affected by conflicts and natural disasters. It is the largest humanitarian fundraising appeal ever launched. To date, the response from backers has reached 11.3 billion dollars, which covers 48% of needs. 12.3 billion dollars still need to be found… Fundraising appeals have been rising steadily for several years and the sum requested by the UN for 2017 represents almost three times 2011’s amount (7.9 billion dollars).

Source: “Global Humanitarian Overview 2017 – Status Report, June 2017,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs


Know more :

> Aquaforce500: an emergency water treatment unit


1. Arm of the UN Secretariat responsible for gathering humanitarian players to provide a coherent response to emergency situations.