Q&A: Neal Keny-Guyer, Mercy Corps CEO, on building a more just world in 2018

January 17, 2018

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The global order is changing, and 2018 represents a critical juncture. How can we address conflict, climate change, and other issues that are affecting families around the world?

Read on to learn more in this Q&A with Neal Keny-Guyer, who has served as Mercy Corps' CEO since 1994.

You’ve noted that we’re living in a time of unprecedented confluence of complex crises around the world — in places like Syria, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Are these distinct events, or are they linked by larger forces?

The big force that’s laying the foundation for many of the crises we see today is conflict. As the World Bank has said, conflict is the number one driver of extreme poverty in the world. Extreme poverty is clustering in fragile environments that are all plagued by conflict. Twenty million people are at risk of famine because of conflict. And if we can’t do a better job as a global community of coming together and addressing the root causes and historical grievances beneath it, we’re going to have a hard time making the progress we all want to see.

There’s no algorithm we could write that would magically reduce conflict. But in each case there are often historical grievances that underlie many of these conflicts, and we have to address them. At Mercy Corps we take great pride in the fact that we focus on the root causes. We’ve seen time and time again that you can bring people together from different tribes, religious backgrounds and sects, and if you can engage the leaders — and particularly the women and young people — then you can make progress.

What you can’t do is put your head in the sand and believe these problems are magically going to go away. We have to recognize that in many ways we’re living through one of the great inflection points of our times. For the last 250 to 300 years, the locus of economic and political power has been centered in the West. That’s shifting. The global order is changing.

What that means is that so many of the solutions of the future are multi-stakeholder. In every great challenge, you have to bring together the government, the private sector, communities and civil societies in order to make progress. So in many ways, the relevancy and effectiveness of a group like Mercy Corps is greater today than ever before, because we can be a catalyst. We can bring those stakeholders together. I feel as inspired today as I did 30 years ago when I started this work.


An Iraqi child stands by her mother, who is holding the documents required for registration to receive aid at Dream City in Tikrit. PHOTO: Alice Martins for Mercy Corps

How has the thinking evolved around the role of conflict and violence in hunger?

During my lifetime, one of the great success stories has been the reduction in the number of people who go to bed hungry. The Green Revolution, gender equality, and investments in seeds, science and markets have made a huge difference.

It was just a couple years ago we were celebrating the fact that we had lowered the number of people who go to bed hungry to 775 million people. That’s still too many. But here’s the stark reality: last night, 815 million people went to bed hungry. That’s a 40 million person increase in just two years. And that’s for one reason: conflict — namely the chronic conflicts we see in places like Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and northeast Nigeria. So today the pathway to reducing hunger is by making a difference with respect to conflict. It’s by promoting peace.

What role do young people play in peacebuilding, and how does Mercy Corps give them a voice?

One of the great trends of the world right now is that the future belongs to youth. It’s a youthful world. Sixty percent of the population of Africa is under the age of 25. Seventy-five percent of the population of Uganda is under the age of 25. So the youth, particularly in Africa, are the future. They’re the economic engines, they’re the engines of peace, and of course they’re the political leaders of the future. If we can’t find a way to give them productive pathways to jobs, good politics and good governance, then the future won’t be peaceful.

We’ve seen the power of youth in Kenya, where Mercy Corps has worked for years to engage youth across the country. We had a million youth involved in supporting peaceful elections, and they made a difference. They saw what it was like when elections were violent. They came together and said, never again.

In Somalia, we’ve learned that if you combine education with community service, young people will turn away from negative pathways, particularly those toward violent extremism. It wasn’t education alone, it wasn’t service alone. It was when you can bring the two together that there was the most impact, because youth then feel valued. They have a sense of purpose. They have trust and faith in the future and we have to honor that by working with them every day.

Mercy Corps’ goal is to distribute 25 percent of its emergency response through cash by the end of this year. What have we learned about the power of cash in emergency response?

For me, one of the greatest innovations to come along in the last several years is the move toward direct cash distributions, particularly during crises. Cash is more efficient, cash preserves the dignity of the individual, cash costs less, and cash empowers people to make their own decisions about what they need for their own food, shelter, safety and security.

Cash is also particularly important for women. When a woman has no cash and cannot provide for her own shelter, she can be put in a compromising situation. So cash is critically important.


Saraswati, 30, received money at a cash distribution centre in Nepal after the devastating 2015 earthquakes that left more than 1 million people in need of assistance. PHOTO: Tom Van Cakenberghe for Mercy Corps

If you travel to Greece, where we’ve seen so many Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi refugees, and you talk to them about the power of cash, you can see how amazing it’s been for them. And what’s so transformative is that you can provide it through a voucher on their mobile phone, which then works like a debit card. I’m very grateful for the partnership we’ve had with MasterCard to be able to enhance our cash distributions, as well as our partnership with Cisco, which has increased a lot of access and connectivity. These private sector partnerships combined with frontline aid workers are making a dramatic difference today.

We made a pledge that 25 percent of our humanitarian assistance by the end of this year will be in cash. Well, I’m happy to say that right now we’re close to 40 percent, so I think we’re going to double that pledge and exceed our target by 100 percent.

What is the role of innovation in humanitarian response and why is it important that Mercy Corps continue to push the boundaries to develop new solutions?

Innovation is the magic sauce of the private sector. We’ve pushed innovation for a long time. Whether it’s lab-on-a-chip technology or giving farmers access to information and loans on their mobile phones, we’re seeing innovation across the board, largely driven by technology. It’s absolutely critical, and I think we all need to double down on our efforts.

The other reason it’s so important is that we see in so many places the value of social enterprises — companies that come along and provide last-mile solutions, like for clean energy for example. At Mercy Corps we have our own social investment fund where we invest in many of these last-mile solutions for clean energy and supply chain distributions for really tough, remote markets. Innovation is going to be a big, big part of our future.

Mercy Corps works to build resilience in all contexts — even in emergencies. Why is it important to build toward tomorrow even in a crisis like, say, a hunger emergency?

In almost every global crisis today, you can simultaneously do short-term humanitarian assistance like emergency relief and feeding people, while also beginning to replant crops again, open local businesses and lay foundations for longer-term recovery and development. You want to simultaneously engage those most impacted by the crisis in their own recovery so they become agents of their own recovery.

We’re living in a world now in which most places will see recurring bouts of crisis, shock and disaster. The key is giving people the tools and capacity to build back better and stronger as they come out of crisis. That’s what we mean by resilience. We can’t take away the fact that there will be future shocks and crises. What we can do is better equip and enable people to recover from those shocks and crises in a better, stronger place.

South Sudan is a great example of this. The traditional model had been to ship in truckload after truckload of food at high expense, then warehouse it and provide security for it, then distribute it. In Bentiu, which was the heart of the famine, Mercy Corps began to see that we could engage local people and local farmers to restart their own agriculture. We could buy their crops locally for emergency food assistance, which supports local farmers at the same time and dramatically reduces the cost of providing aid.

That was a win-win all around. You feed people who are hungry right now with their neighbour’s food, in their own markets, and you catalyze agriculture for the future while doing it at a fraction of the cost.


Women in this village in Niger are being trained to develop healthy herds and process the new crops so they can make money from products like peanut oil. PHOTO: Sean Sheridan for Mercy Corps

What opportunities are you excited about for Mercy Corps in 2018?

I think Mercy Corps has never been better positioned to have a positive impact in the world. We’re in virtually every crisis out there. We’re at a scale and a size that matters. We have a terrific team, and I think we’ve got some great ideas right now. That’s what the world is searching for: new ideas, stronger ideas, and people who can bring together government, the private sector, and communities to form powerful new partnerships, and I think we’re positioned to do that like we’ve never done before.

So I feel very motivated right now, as motivated as ever, to get out there and do the hard nitty-gritty work of building a better world. I’m so incredibly proud of the Mercy Corps team I get a chance to work with day in and day out. I have the enormous privilege to get out and travel to some of these frontline places and meet not only the Mercy Corps team members on the front lines, but also the extraordinary unsung heroes we work with every day in an effort to build a more secure, productive and just world.