Corporations Can Contribute Positively

Over the past few decades, the humanitarian aid community has seen the number of corporations contributing to their efforts increase exponentially. A field that was once populated almost exclusively by independent groups such as Oxfam and Medecins San Frontieres now finds themselves working alongside, and even competing with, massive corporations such as Wal-Mart.

The surge of Neoliberalism that has taken over the United States economic system threatens humanitarian aid efforts for a number of reasons. The most unfortunate, and dangerous threat comes with the increasingly common attitude of arrogance and indifference towards the have-nots of the U.S. population, and those abroad.

Elizabeth Martinez, a civil rights activist, discusses this issue in her article “What is Neoliberalism?” She says that there has been a systematic elimination of “the concept of the ‘public good’ or ‘community’”(Martinez) This focus instead on, “individual responsibility,” means that the “poorest people in a society” are pressured, “to find solutions to their lack of health care, education and social security all by themselves” and then are blamed if they fail. (Martinez)

This indifference may have reached its breaking point however. Today, many companies find themselves under fire for having their all-consuming concern be the maximization of profit at all costs. In order to counteract this negative image, and respond to the backlash from their consumer base, many companies have intentionally created very conspicuous humanitarian sectors within their corporations, to distribute aid in a very effective and visible manner.

These companies hope that their humanitarian efforts will convince their consumers that they care about something other than increasing revenue. Even if these efforts are conducted under false pretenses, and their motivations aren’t necessarily the purest, should their aid be refused?

In Stephen Hopgood’s book, “Humanitarianism in Question: Politics, Power, Ethics” he writes, “The dying have a price, their suffering is now worth something to Wal-Mart. Andthis makes them the lucky ones, for they are now the objects of strategies of accumulation. Do the dying care, in extremis, who feeds or bandages them, or why, or whether that person has a Wal-Mart logo on her vest? Do we have the right to consign thousands of people to an avoidable death on principle?” (Hopgood)

Though large corporations might be involved in the aid effort for the wrong reasons, so long as they are contributing in a competent and responsible manner, then why not let them pour millions of dollars into aid campaigns? Corporations have the capability to allocate huge resources to disaster areas, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina where Wal-Mart, “Immediately gave $20 million in cash, one hundred truckloads of free goods, and food for one hundred thousand people.” (Hopgood) Even though there were many critics who argued that, “Wal-Mart’s corporate giving, including that for Hurricane Katrina, was a calculated effort to improve its image after a barrage of negative stories,” no one could deny the overwhelming positive effect that their donations had on the situation. (Hopgood)

Wal-Mart responded to Katrina immediately by sending millions of dollars in aid and free access to their shipping resources. With such positive results, why should corporations not be allowed to support aid efforts?

Wal-Mart responded to Hurricane Katrina by immediately sending millions of dollars in aid and one hundred truck loads of free goods, as seen above.  With such positive results, why should corporations be frowned upon for their aid efforts?

To further this point, think for a moment about Henry Dunant, inspiration for the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the four fundamental principles that he believed humanitarian aid efforts should always uphold.  The first is to “alleviate human suffering wherever it is found” something that Wal-Mart and other corporations have proven they can do very effectively with the huge sums of money they have at their disposal. (Dunant)

The next two principles, neutrality and impartiality, are concerns of any humanitarian aid effort, and so long as military assistance is not given, and the aid reaches all genders and races equally, then corporations will have no more a problem fulfilling those requirements than NGOs do.

Only the last principle, “independence”, raises some concern. Although Dunant believed that aid should be free of, “benefactors” save for the victims themselves, I would argue that large corporations such as Wal-Mart are not benefactors in the true sense of the word. (Dunant)

Although their aid efforts may recast the company in a more positive light, that is a relatively harmless side effect. So long as these corporations uphold the same policies of neutrality and impartiality that are expected of NGOs, then upholding a commitment to independence should inevitably follow suit.

The theory of Utilitarianism is in its most basic form, is that “the aim of action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain” and whichever decision achieves the “greatest happiness of the greatest number” should be pursued. By embracing the inevitability of corporations becoming involved in the global humanitarian aid effort, we in turn can save countless more lives through the addition of new funding. Therefore, the potential positive effect that these large corporations could have, greatly outweigh the negative effects of the otherwise ethically questionable use of humanitarian aid donations as a sort of public relations stunt.

Regardless of the motivations of the donors, so long as wounds are being treated, children are being fed, and the responsibilities that come with wielding great power are being upheld – then benevolence should never be refused.


Works Cited:

Dunant, Henry. The International Committee of The Red Cross. “Four Founding Principles”

Hopgood, Stephen. “Saying No to Wal-Mart: Money and Morality in Professional Humanitarianism. June 25, 2013.


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