There’s this thing that keeps coming up in discussions between humanitarian NGOs and for-profit sector entities – corporations, businesses, and the like: it’s the myth of the “win-win.”
In it’s most elemental form “win-win” is basically benign. It simply says that something – an idea, a product, a strategy… can be good for everyone. Distributing product “X” can meet the needs of beneficiaries in a disaster zone, and also be great branding, visibility, market penetration, etc. for the company that produces product “X.” Aid recipients, disaster survivors, IDPs, refugees, the poor get something they genuinely need; A for-profit company makes more money, either directly via increased sales or indirectly via good press, positive publicity, general good will.
It seems straightforward enough.
Everybody gets something they need. No harm, no foul.
What could be wrong with that?
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The problem is that in actual practice “win-win” too often becomes the point – “We need to find the ‘win-win.’” When in fact what those disaster survivors, those refugees, the poor and their needs are, or at least should be, the real point.
I do not doubt the genuine altruism of some, perhaps many in the for-profit world, people who genuinely care about the situation of their less-fortunate brothers and sisters in other places and who honestly want to help. (Nor am I naïve to the reality that there are truly cut-throat, make-profit-at-any-cost people and companies out there as well.) It’s not my intention to put anyone down or take anyone to task. But I think that maybe we need to remind ourselves that aid is ultimately about helping the poor.
Aid is ultimately about serving the poor in the most effective manner possible. Serving the poor in ways that make sense on their terms. Serving the poor in ways that respond to their actual needs.
By contrast, Aid is not about finding a “win-win” for for-profit companies and entrepreneurs. Maybe it sounds harsh – not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings (although sometimes it’s unavoidable) – but that is the reality.
Sometimes aid is hard and messy and expensive. There are usually no easy solutions. Sometimes you just have to front cash to pay for what’s needed. Sometimes what’s needed cannot be branded or photographed. Sometimes supporting the thing that is needed most is not good for business. Sometimes supporting the thing that is needed most will not ever ever increase profit margins or market share.
Aid starts and ends with what the poor need. If our starting point is anything other than what the poor need, then we are already headed down the road to bad aid. Simple as that.
Maybe there is a situation where a for-profit Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) interest aligns perfectly with an assessed need in the field. And maybe those few-and-far-between opportunities are genuine “win-wins.”
But thus far much of the conversation has been largely around trying to find needs that match pre-existing solutions; trying to find a context in which product or service or idea “X” can be made to work. It’s not the greatest thing, but hey – they’ve got nothing, right? We’re not actually causing harm. At least not so far as we know… isn’t that a “win-win”?
(And by the way, this is largely my issue with volunteers as well: they are almost always a pre-packaged solution in need of a problem to solve.)
But the thing is, Aid is about the poor. It’s not about finding what works for corporations and entrepreneurs. It’s not about successfully identifying someplace to ship a container full of “X” or a context in which to implement idea “Y.” Aid is not about marketing or social media or mashable or “buzz” or large numbers of whatever being collected.
Aid is about the poor. It starts and ends with them.
Unless they win, hands-down, there can be no “win-win.”