MercyCorps sets up Dubai hub to serve MENA, build partnerships

The development agency is setting up regional headquarters based in Dubai to serve the MENA region

MercyCorps, the global humanitarian and development agency, is setting up regional headquarters based in Dubai to better address the needs of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and build private sector partnerships that would support its programmes in the area.

The aid agency, which works in some 45 countries around the world and employs around 5,000 staff, is in the process of registering at the International Humanitarian City (IHC) in Dubai and is in talks with philanthropic and private sector parties to establish partnerships, said MercyCorps CEO Simon O’Connell.

“The world is a very complex place right now. There are more than 60 million people displaced, a lot of the humanitarian architecture that we work within… is linear and siloed and needs to be reformed,” said O’Connell. “We also see a more multi-polar world with new power structures, new powers emerging, and we see that as a tremendous opportunity to rethink somewhat how we work and who we partner with.”

“Dubai is at the forefront of a lot of that. There’s tremendous intellectual and resource capital here in the UAE and we want to, in our own way, harness the power of that productivity and build new partnership paradigms in some of the geographies where we work globally,” he added.

Among the entities it has engaged so far are Grameen Jameel, Emirates Foundation and Aramex, according to the CEO.  

Short term humanitarian assistance is a band aid, but what we really need to focus on is addressing the underlying causes

Simon O’Connell, MercyCorps CEO

MercyCorps’ operations are divided into five regions, with the largest being the MENA, representing close to 40 percent of its programmes. The agency works with those affected by disaster, conflict or poverty, and has helped more than 258 million people survive emergencies and rebuild their lives since 1979. In addition to providing basic humanitarian assistance, such as food, water and shelter, it also offers low-cost financing to the poor and assists communities through programmes geared towards long-term recovery.

“We feel that all too often humanitarian actors will go into a humanitarian context and provide a short-term, immediate fix, which is often clearly needed but that doesn’t address longer-term underlying causes,” said O’Connell. “Our approach is to go in a crisis situation – and we work in many crisis situations around the world – to quickly identify how we can provide that immediate need and those longer term solutions.”

When one of the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history hit Indonesia in 2004, MercyCorps was on the ground to provide humanitarian assistance two days later. After delivering those immediate requirements, it set up cash-transfer programmes for those most in need. It then created financial literacy training programmes and formed community savings and credit groups to show people how to best use their funds and translate them into productive economic outputs. Finally, this led to aggregating those credit activities into microfinance institutions, which eventually resulted in an umbrella of 50 microfinance institutions that currently reach over 10 million people.

“We believe passionately in the need not to silo humanitarian and development interventions,” said O’Connell. “At MercyCorps, we work and believe passionately in the power of private sector collaboration.”

The agency has partnerships with some of the biggest corporations globally, including MasterCard and Coca Cola, and sees “an opportunity to harness some of the private sector resources in the UAE” and to channel that “productively” into some of the areas where it operates, he said.

One example would be a programme titled MicroMentor, a free business mentoring plan that connects start up businesses and youth to mentors. It is currently running in the state of New York.

O'Connell with staff at a technical training centre in Quetta, Pakistan

“We are looking to roll out that programme across the MENA region. Here in the UAE we have a number of emerging discussions happening on that front, with a focus on youth. The youth demographic here is huge. All too often we feel that that youth demographic is highlighted in a negative way as a cause for instability or violence. We see tremendous opportunity to harness the power of youth in a productive and meaningful way,” O’Connell said.

MercyCorps is also focused on innovation, and has a social innovations team looking at ways to employ new technologies and ideas, and pilot them as part of their programmes in the different geographies where they work.

The Dubai hub will play a key role in MercyCorps’ mission to implement large-scale programmes geared towards youth, as the new hub serves countries in the MENA, in addition to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The agency  has helped more than 258 million people survive emergencies and rebuild their lives since 1979

“We see having a regional hub here as a way to disseminate the information on the programmes and the impact we are having within the region, and also build partnerships with others who are aiming to address both the challenges in this region, but also harness some of the opportunity and productivity of this region and channel that into positive ways,” he said.

In this region, the focus will be on continuing to provide humanitarian support to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. In Syria, MercyCorps is extending assistance to more than half a million people every month with immediate humanitarian aid. In Jordan and Lebanon, it is running livelihood support programmes that aim to strengthen the relationship between refugees and host populations. The agency is also working with youth in Tunisia and Morocco, helping create economic opportunities through partnerships between youth and the private sector.

“We are certainly living through very challenging times. There’s a lot of immediate need in places like Yemen, Syria, Central African Republic, Eastern DR of Congo, Afghanistan, etc. But at the same time people are better connected than ever before, tech has the power to reach millions, we are better equipped than ever before to achieve impact at real scale, particularly through these partnerships between government, private sector and civil society,” said O’Connell.

“Short term humanitarian assistance is a band aid, but what we really need to focus on is addressing the underlying causes.”