The Corporate Humanitarian

Big-Box Retailers Targeted By Chicago Ordinance

The most basic definition of a humanitarian is “…pertaining to the saving of human lives or to the alleviation of suffering…a person actively engaged in promoting human welfare and social reforms, as a philanthropist” (“Humanitarian”). Some people would define humanitarianism with a Dunantist view, saying that we need to have impartiality. Which I certainly agree with when analyzing the problems in an area, but this impartiality can also be problematic as we saw discussed in War Games, where many of the refugee camps in Goma simply refueled armies through their refugee soldiers. I personally associate my definition of a humanitarian not only with the quote above, but I also found the Oxfam “Be Humankind” ad to be helpful in defining this because we as all humans (so we all can be humanitarians) need to speak out against the injustices, and others will follow suit. When I think of any humanitarian definition though, I think of a person working in war zones and crisis areas and doing their best not only to support the victims, but to change the area for the better and prevent future crisis from happening. But when you read this definition, could you apply it to a corporation? Perhaps in America we would be more inclined to say yes, since capitalism thrives off of the consumerism that these corporations provide. Sure, corporations are run by humans who can have these good intentions, but is the main goal really to alleviate suffering?

Similar to the MONGOS that Polman discusses in War Games, new ways of trying to facilitate humanitarian aid arise and they all believe that their idea is better than the last and many donate their money toward these causes, causing the humanitarian aid industry to boom. In order to compete and earn the most money to provide aid, businesses have adopted neoliberism tactics: “One crucial element of this doctrine is the idea that where private capital can provide public and nonprofit services more efficiently it should be allowed to do so. The entry of firms, and the logic of business, into the area of humanitarianism is the result” (Hopgood 99). The money of donators is how humanitarian aid organizations thrive, and pairing up with a corporation can get them even more money. In Polman’s book this focus on money rather than providing aid is condemned, but this shift that has occurred in the humanitarian aid industry would be difficult to be rid of, especially because consumers/donators are tied into the mix.

As I discussed in my individual research, this cause-related marketing (where corporate entities donate portions of their profit to charity) is definitely appealing to consumers, even if it is not doing much for the actual humanitarian organizations. Corporations use cause-related marketing to gain more profit for themselves rather than primarily focusing in on the main idea of a humanitarian to “alleviate suffering”. According to Nan and Heo’s research, over 85% of organization’s corporate members are using cause-related marketing strategies (Nan and Heo 63). Not only is this being widely used as a profit-gaining strategy by corporations, but consumers actually have been shown to pay up to 6% more for charitable causes and also favor certain retailers and brands if they support a good cause (Elfenbein and McManus 28-29). Those trying to provide aid simply by purchasing things for themselves need to focus on who is really profiting from strategies like this–the people in need or aid or corporations?

I believe that corporations are only taking a humanitarian stand because of the profits they see. Although they gain all of this money that they can use for humanitarian acts, most of it goes straight into their pockets instead of into aid. Hopgood even says: “Wal-Mart is about turning money into more money; and it is not inherently to one kind of service for only one, invariant, “consumer”” (Hopgood 102). If Wal-Mart were to provide aid to an area of crisis, surely they would have workers wearing Wal-Mart gear and make this seen publicly by the media in order to attract more consumers who would appreciate the work they are doing. Wal-Mart has already put many American corporations and small businesses out of business with its exports, why would it stop there?

I do not think that humanitarian organizations should team up with these corporations, especially Wal-Mart because they do not share the same common goal. Humanitarianism is more than just meeting the needs of victims, and according to Hopgood: “Wal-Mart’s metric for “customer satisfaction” cannot accommodate such costly and qualitative criteria. It can only provide the basics–water, food, medicine, shelter” and surely these things are needed but can already be purchased by the amount donated without corporation’s help (Hopgood 113).

Here is a link to a movie about the high cost of Wal-Mart: 



Works Cited:

Elfenbein, Daniel W., and Brian McManus. “A Greater Price for a Greater Good? Evidence That Consumers Pay More for Charity-Linked Products.” JSTOR. American Economic Association, May 2010. Web. 24 June 2013.

Hopgood, Stephen. “Saying “No” to Wal-Mart?: Money and Mortality in Professional Humanitarianism.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2013. <>.

“Humanitarian.” N.p., n.d. Web. 24 June 2013. <>.

Nan, Xiaoli, and Kwangjun Heo. “Consumer Responses to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Initiatives: Examining the Role of Brand-Cause Fit in Cause-Related Marketing.” JSTOR. M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2007. Web. 17 June 2013.

Polman, Linda. War Games. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

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