Building Partnerships between Humanitarian & Development Actors: A Q&A with Mercy Corps CEO, Neal Keny-Guyer – Women Deliver

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September 26, 2018 Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO Mercy Corps

Building Partnerships between Humanitarian & Development Actors: A Q&A with Mercy Corps CEO, Neal Keny-Guyer


When the United Nations and the international community launched the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, there was a commitment to “leave no one behind.” Then UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon urged the community to “set aside artificial institutional labels such as ‘development’ and ‘humanitarian,’” and urged agencies to “move beyond the comfort of traditional silos, mandates and institutional boundaries.” Despite this, development and humanitarian organizations most often operate separately, making the transition from crisis to stability more challenging and disjointed.

This month, the Deliver for Good campaign spoke with Neal Keny-Guyer, the CEO of Mercy Corps, a global non-governmental, humanitarian aid organization operating in transitional contexts. As the newest campaign partner, Mercy Corps is seeking to break down these silos and build a bridge between the humanitarian and development sectors – showing the power of partnerships to deliver for girls and women in all settings.

In a recent interview you mentioned that “many solutions of the future are multi-stakeholder.” In your opinion, what are the core elements of effective, multi-stakeholder partnerships that engage both development and humanitarian actors? Please share specific examples.

Neal Keny-Guyer: At Mercy Corps we know that we must work in partnership to address the most urgent challenges of our time – issues like conflict, mass displacement, climate change, gender equality, and poverty. For these partnerships to be effective, we have to engage and lift up the voices of those we are striving to help. We have to share the same objectives, communicate openly and transparently, and share ownership of the risks and successes. Take the 2015 European refugee crisis. Navigating the complexity of large numbers of people on the move meant working collaboratively across sectors and borders to reach people with critical support. It meant working together in a process of co-creation, engaging every partner – especially refugees – to identify mutual objectives and the best strategies to achieve them. After consulting refugees who were landing in Greece and along the Balkan route, Mercy Corps partnered with Cisco and the International Rescue Committee to develop Refugee. Info, an online resource that connected refugees with vital information and resources. Together, Cisco and Mercy Corps have scaled up this innovative technology solution into a global digital platform called Signpost, reaching nearly 1 million people and growing.

Mercy Corps’ ENGINE program in Nigeria is another example of how multi-stakeholder partnerships can lead to transformative change for adolescent girls. Mercy Corps, DFID and Coca-Cola forged the partnership around the mutual objective of improving the quality of education and safe income-earning opportunities for older adolescent girls. Today, more than 20,000 adolescent girls have improved their reading and math skills and built financial independence. They received training on life skills, literacy and numeracy skills and micro-franchising, as well as supplies from Coca-Cola to start businesses. The Central Bank of Nigeria helped girls open bank accounts without requiring an initial deposit, giving them a secure place to save their money. And the National Identity Management Commission registered girls for electronic ID cards, which gave them access to secure electronic banking services.

Mercy Corps recently signed the commitment to join the Deliver for Good campaign. At the same time, you have shown increased dedication to reach adolescent girls in humanitarian response work. As the first campaign partner focused specifically on humanitarian aid and action, why is this partnership an important step toward “leaving no one behind” – including adolescent girls?

Neal Keny-Guyer: There’s no question that the way young people experience crisis depends on their age and gender. During humanitarian crises, adolescent girls often become invisible. They are often kept inside preparing meals and caring for siblings, or they’re sent out to work to earn money for the family. It’s challenging to find and reach them, and to keep them safe from sexual exploitation and harassment. But if we don’t place a special emphasis on supporting adolescents - particularly girls - in the midst of humanitarian crisis, their communities may forever be trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, conflict and inequality.

Safe spaces are a key strategy to protect and empower girls in humanitarian and fragile contexts. In the midst of humanitarian crisis like in northeast Nigeria, Mercy Corps is creating safe and supportive environments for adolescent girls that are free from physical and emotional harm, allowing them to develop life and livelihood skills, make new friends, build social capital, increase their social networks, and connect with a safe and trusted mentor.

As a humanitarian and action partner for the Deliver for Good campaign, Mercy Corps will be a strong advocate, pushing the industry, and ourselves, to do better for adolescents. We will implore donors and implementers to develop scalable, flexible programs that can reach adolescent girls in the first months of an emergency. We’ll continue to focus on equipping girls with essential knowledge, connecting them to critical sexual and reproductive health services, and helping them build social, protective networks. We won’t achieve the SDGs if we do not ensure that humanitarian response supports adolescents.

From armed conflicts to natural disasters, we know that today’s humanitarian emergencies last longer and result in more prolonged periods of forced displacement. Given that girls and women are now displaced for an average of 20 to 30 years, how can development and humanitarian organizations work together to both meet immediate needs and prioritize their long-term futures?

Neal Keny-Guyer: Emergency responses must always looks forward. Even while providing urgent assistance that saves lives, we want to help people pivot to recovery as fast as possible. In order to do that, we have to help women and girls recover and become more resilient to future shocks.

We know that when women can generate their own income and find economic security, communities are more stable long-term. Women are more likely to invest in family needs, which has proportionally larger effects on household recovery. Without inclusive economic growth, gains in health, education and social welfare aren’t even remotely sustainable. In fragile contexts like Afghanistan and Jordan, Mercy Corps as well as many of our peers, are facilitating women’s access to markets, addressing harmful gender norms in the community, and building the economic resilience of women and girls.

And in contexts like Somalia, where persistent gender inequality remains, it is imperative that we help girls thrive. Decades of civil war have demolished the education system and women have little access to work opportunities.  Efforts to work in partnership with Ministries of Education to build pipelines of female teachers and with community stakeholders to enable female teachers to work in schools are examples of activities that we do to move from humanitarian response to longer term recovery and rebuilding. Mercy Corps and our peers are focused on the holistic needs of girls even in these fragile contexts, such as establishing curriculum for girl’s empowerment forums that have proven to increase enrollment and retention in secondary schools, and engaging successful women leaders as mentors and to advocate for girls’ rights to safe education. We know that by doing these things, we can keep girls in school, increase employment opportunities for women, and build household and community resilience to future stresses, such as droughts and displacement.

As I mentioned earlier, it takes all of us working together to address the immediate needs of women and girls, while also building their capacities to actively participate in the social, economic and political development of their communities and countries.

It’s important to plant those seeds of longer-term recovery and resilience building in the early days of any humanitarian response.

One of the challenges with bridging the divide between humanitarian and development work is that funding streams are often separate and target different implementing actors. What should we encourage donors to do in order to deliver integrated and sustainable financing for humanitarian response and development activities to improve the lives of women and girls?

Neal Keny-Guyer: First, it is imperative that our industry consistently collects sex and age disaggregated data (SADD) and leverages that information to benefit adolescents, especially girls. While collectively we have confirmed the importance of collecting SADD during humanitarian and development contexts, the data is generally used for donor reporting and monitoring purposes, not for program design. As part of the Girls in Emergency Collaborative, a group representing several major humanitarian response organizations, Mercy Corps has shifted away from large default categories of SADD (e.g under 18 years of age) in order make adolescents visible and ensure they are meaningfully included in program design and that funding is focused on their protection, well-being, education, and appropriate gender based violence and sexual reproductive health services.

We also encourage donors to shift to a more integrated approach away from a “siloed” funding response in which short-term humanitarian responses and three- to five-year development programs are kept separate. Instead, we must implement a holistic strategy that: bridges relief and development needs and shores up the ability of front-line communities to withstand and respond to the challenges of a protracted crisis. And this strategy must intentionally integrate the needs and capacities of adolescents as key members of communities, based on the SADD data collected and analyzed.

In addition, we urge donors to invest in evidence-generating holistic (multi-sectoral) programming. Mercy Corps believes in and invests in research to make humanitarian action more effective for the women, men, boys and girls we serve, and this is especially true for adolescents. We need to emphasize to donors how resilience can drive better outcomes for fragile societies in the short and long-term; how demand-driven market systems can contribute to faster recovery; and how engaging women and girls contributes to improved household and community resilience.

And finally, we believe the humanitarian system needs to shift from a project-and-output based way of financing and delivering aid to one that emphasizes adaptation in the face of complexity, outcomes and partnerships. We are building a toolkit that enables any humanitarian or development actor to be adaptive and test approaches in a way that puts local people, communities, systems and institutions at the heart of any intervention.

What is an example of an effective partnership between development and humanitarian organizations that have really inspired and motivated you? Please explain the specific elements that stand out and why?

Neal Keny-Guyer: We have many positive examples of effective partnerships. Mercy Corps partners with Business Fights Poverty, a global platform of 20,000 professionals interested in the role of the private sector in ending global poverty. More than half of their members are business professionals and the others are from NGOs, government and civil society. Business Fights Poverty runs “challenges” through working groups that identify and address specific questions about how to harness and scale the positive impact of business on people or the planet. The challenges are time-bound and collaborative efforts of knowledge and engagement activities with clear outputs. There is a great opportunity to suggest a challenge that is reflective of the Deliver for Good priorities.

In addition, we are a leading member of the No Lost Generation initiative, a multi-stakeholder effort by donors, UN agencies, NGOs and governments advocating to ensure children and young people affected by the crisis in Syria and Iraq have access to education, protection and opportunities to engage positively in their community and society. The initiative is led by UNICEF and three NGO co-leads: Mercy Corps, World Vision International and Save the Children. There is an active working group of 38 organizations serving as the main decision-making platform for partners in the initiative.

While programming and advocacy work to achieve the NLG goals takes place in each of the six NLG countries, humanitarian and development partners collaborate at the regional level to influence decision makers on key advocacy and funding appeals, gain access to relevant frameworks for guiding programs and innovations, and ensure the voices of children and youth are raised at all levels and in high-level events.

As world leaders, donors, and key stakeholders from both the humanitarian and development sectors converge in NY for the United Nations General Assembly, what is your one key message to decision makers on how to do better for women and girls?

Neal Keny-Guyer: First, we must be intentional about reaching women and girls: investing in them has multiplier effects like few other investments. Second, we must be deliberate about tackling harmful gender norms, such as gender-based violence and prioritizing boys’ over girls’ education. Third, we must address the complex and unique needs of women and girls to enable them to actively and successfully engage in the social, political and economic development of their communities. Fourth, we must involve men and boys. If we do not engage them, we will not be able to foster the change in norms and behaviors that is necessary for sustained transformation. And finally, we must give young women and girls seats at all tables. We should engage them as partners in solutions, not just in needs assessments. And we need to model this in our own programming and structures. Young women and girls should be present at each country-level cluster meeting, working group, and coordination mechanism to make their voices heard and demonstrate the value of true partnership.

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