A World on Fire

Jason Kaplan

Share this article! Globe-trotting is par for the course for Neal Keny-Guyer. In the past three months alone, the CEO of Mercy Corps has traveled to Uganda, Davos, Nigeria, China, Macedonia, Greece and Washington, D.C. Keny-Guyer has helmed the Portland-based international aid and development organization since 1994. Today the nonprofit employs 3,933 people worldwide; 180 in … Read more

Globe-trotting is par for the course for Neal Keny-Guyer. In the past three months alone, the CEO of Mercy Corps has traveled to Uganda, Davos, Nigeria, China, Macedonia, Greece and Washington, D.C. Keny-Guyer has helmed the Portland-based international aid and development organization since 1994. Today the nonprofit employs 3,933 people worldwide; 180 in the U.S. Annual revenue last year clocked in at $448 million, up from $382 million in 2014.

The day before departing Portland for The Hague, Keny-Guyer, 61, discusses market-based approaches to international aid, the Syrian refugee crisis and how he manages to stay positive amid world upheaval.

Donations are up. Why?

If we’re doing well, it usually means the world is not. Because of Syria, the European refugee crisis, the state of the world — business, unfortunately, is good.

How is the donor demographic changing?

We had a record year in terms of private donations, close to $70 million. We’ve seen growth in our corporation support, in foundations. The largest segment of growth is European governments: the British government and the European Union. It reflects our commitment to being a global, international nongovernmental organization.

Employee demographics are also changing.

The biggest change has been in the expat category: national staff who work abroad. When I started over 20 years ago, the expats were folks from the West. Today less than 50% of the expat staff is from the West. We’ve created a global workforce. We have Indonesians working in South Sudan and Africans working in the Middle East. That trend will continue.

How do you manage a global workforce?

Before, you used to talk about combining IQ with EQ [emotional intelligence]. In our business, you also have to bring in CQ: cultural intelligence. But you can’t presume just because someone was born in Africa they are going to have automatic cultural intelligence. That’s not a dissimilar challenge to any kind of global company that is trying to build a global team. It does mean: What can we learn from the private sector? What is the latest thinking on building a high-performing, agile workforce?

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What is the latest thinking on market solutions to humanitarian problems?

We have a team devoted to social innovation and social ventures. We raise our own internal investment fund as a grant, and we invest it like a venture capital or private equity into social entrepreneurs. There is a team to leverage technology for clean water, for green energy and so forth. How do you leverage the mobile phone in even more powerful ways to
get financial services and information to small farmers around the world?

Describe a few specific innovations.

We’re expanding our microinsurance program throughout Central America and hope to take it to Africa. Farmers and small agribusinesses live in places where storms come through every year, every other year, so they have to start over. What if you could bring an insurance product priced that they could afford, with enough scale that you could underwrite it? Our microinsurance program is a for-profit insurance company in partnership with Suiss Re. The key is if you can bring insurance products to people who live on $2 to $3 a day or less, if you can open up that bottom of the pyramid, that’s a sustainable solution as opposed to having massive amounts of emergency aid come through.

So the traditional model of humanitarian aid is on its way out?

There will always be need for traditional forms of aid. And with climate change — we’ll see greater intensity and frequency of weather events, whether major droughts or major storms.

Does the European refugee crisis call for yet another approach? 

In partnership with Google, we created a website, refugeeinfo.eu. It gives refugees arriving in Greece information about where to register, safest routes and their rights. These are the first refugees who are showing up with plastic bags tied around their necks with their phone protected. Refugees are going into places where markets work, so we don’t need to organize massive warehouses with stuff. What if people could go to local markets and buy what they need? In partnership with MasterCard and others, we’ve been developing a debit card for refugees to use with vendors.

So the idea is to give money instead of aid? 

In the Philippines, we did almost our entire assistance with a digital bank — giving people the ability to get cash off the phone. They were able to make purchases for their own relief and recovery. If you can get cash in the hands of people with a framework of accountability, then people will often make smarter decisions than the aid agency. This is the way of the future for us, not storing things in warehouses and organizing massive logistics.

Which is what you’re doing in Syria, where markets don’t work.

We’ve been the largest provider of crossborder assistance into Syria of any organization in the world. We’re reaching about 550,000 people on a monthly basis. To have been able to operate trucks, to do it accountably, to get into some of the most besieged and conflicted areas where others can’t — that is as innovative as anything we have done. It certainly has had a massive impact on the people there.

What are your metrics for success?

It’s easy to look at a microfinance program and ask: Are people paying back loans on time? Are you reaching the right demographics? What is harder, and the Holy Grail is: Are you moving the needle in a way that is really transforming a massive number of lives? How do our interventions begin to nudge the arc of big change?

How do you measure transformation?

We have an internal monitoring and an action research team. For example, we do a lot of work building skills, enabling people to get jobs. We had a team of researchers in southern Afghanistan, where we asked: How important is getting a job in deterring a young person from engaging in extreme political violence? We trained about 40,000 young people in Afghanistan and 80% got a job; 80% still had jobs six months later. These were fantastic numbers by all the benchmarks — except their attitude toward the Taliban was more positive at the end of the program than the beginning.

What’s the takeaway?

It turns out what influenced their views are things like: Were they abused by local security officers in their youth? Did they have an experience of corruption by local government? Our point is not jobs aren’t important, but if that’s your sole strategy on countering violent extremism, then what is going to work is much tougher. How do you build good government institutions? That’s always been the secret sauce. So we are much better at learning, at measuring success, when we can set up a hypothesis, design and action research program.

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Are you optimistic about moving the needle?

This January was my seventh or eighth time at the World Economic Forum in Davos. If you want to know what the global elite are feeling about the world, that’s the place to go. There was more anxiety than I’ve seen since the economic collapse in 2008-09.

The elite are not alone.

There are more people displaced by violence now than at any other time since WWII. There is a sense the world is on fire and maybe weaker global institutions at any time since WWII to come together and solve these problems. Will we have the will to address climate change? Rising inequality and dampened hopes about the future are driving people to extremes. You see it in this country and in Europe.

Nevertheless, you remain hopeful.

To quote Amory Lovins: I’m “applied hopeful,” meaning we have the responsibility to create a brighter future but only if we are applying ourselves. The power of technology to improve our life — there is tremendous potential for doing good. Maybe all of this noise will turn into a conversation, and we’ll find the right leaders to move us ahead. That’s the hope.