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Meet a UN Focal Point: Kiki Rebecca Lawal, Programme Officer, Business Partnerships, UNISDR


Kiki Rebecca Lawal is a Programme Officer for business partnerships at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), an organization which focuses on saving lives, jobs and reducing poverty by promoting disaster risk reduction as a strategic priority among engaging with individuals, all countries, local governments, business, communities, scientists, and parliamentarians. Prior to this, Kiki worked for the United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) as the head of Signatory Relations for some 200 UNEP FI Signatories from 45 countries as well as at Citibank in London as an Activation Manager.

While Kiki was born in Ivory Coast, a country with which her family has close ties, her primary family home is in Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria. She has now spent more than two-thirds of her life in Europe after having, first, begun boarding school in the United Kingdom at the age of 11 years and, subsequently, studying Business Economics at Middlesex Business School of London and receiving her MBA from the University of Liverpool. She says, “Working at the United Nations is more than a job for me. My mother and father are in Africa. Since I was lucky enough to have a private school education in the UK, I always ask myself what I can give back to the my home and to the world. My job in the UN allows me to give back whatever I can.”

UNISDR works with members of the private sector who are taking the lead in reducing risks and ensuring the safety of long-term investments. By ensuring business continuity and planning ahead to protect infrastructure and services, they mitigate disasters on society and economy. UNISDR also works with business taking an active interest in investing more in human, technical and financial resources to build the resilience of nations and communities by using core business arrangements, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility to support communities, local and national governments as well as international organizations in protecting lives and livelihoods.

UNISDR’s engagement with the private sector has been years in the making, but things picked up in 2010 when Kiki was brought in to move beyond ad hoc collaborations to more strategic footing and help UNISDR overcome the lack of trust among staff towards potential private sector partners. This task, while challenging, was aided considerably though the vision of Margareta Wahlström, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Disaster Risk Reduction, who upon appointment in late 2008 began to stress the necessity of collaborating with companies to coordinate disaster risk reduction action. Kiki states, “For her it was very clear, she saw the world where the social, political and economic imperative of disaster risk reduction needed to be acted upon…Having a boss which made this imperative clear made my job much easier.”

Kiki began the process of developing a strategy towards private sector partnerships through an initial concept paper with input from colleagues which addressed a few key issues, including figuring out why UNISDR should partner with the private sector, what expectations the Office has towards potential partners and whether or not UNISDR was in a position to attract potential partners. Once she got internal approval from the Chief of her section, the process moved forward organically. She explains, “Whenever there was a private sector meeting within the United Nations in the areas of energy, climate or adaptation, I went and listened to all the panels on which company representatives made presentations. I then had this idea to take all the business cards of these panelists and asked them if they know about disaster risk reduction. By the time I finished with them, I had gotten them invested in the topic on an emotional level.”

By 2010, Kiki had developed a two-pronged engagement effort of, first, binding a handful of dedicated companies to the causes of UNISDR and, second, of spreading the word about the mandate of UNISDR and its importance through large events with participants from all sectors. She explains, “It’s hard work! Each person needed to be personally and individually motivated and genuinely understand that we work on prevention, not humanitarian response. The idea of the Private Sector Advisory Group came out of the conviction that in order to create true impact, we have to understand their interest. We have to speak their language and, most of all, we need champions. The Private Sector Advisory Group members are corporate sustainability leaders that show the way forward when it comes to reducing disaster risk.” This strategy began to pay off when, at the June 2010 Leaders Summit organized by the UN Global Compact Office, Aris Papadopoulos, the CEO of heavy building materials company Titan America, lent his full support to UNISDR and began to assist in the process of strategically communicating UNISDR’s message to other companies.

These initial efforts led to considerable progress in pushing forward Kiki’s engagement efforts. First, in May 2011 UNISDR launched its Private Sector Advisory Group, a group of companies which serve as a catalyst for bringing together a wide range of private sector entities to ensure the safety of long-term investments and plan ahead to protect industry and society from disasters and economic disruptions while ensuring business continuity. Specifically, the group aims to:

Advise UNISDR with their practical expertise in the field of disaster risk reduction; Complement UNISDR’s disaster risk reduction efforts by bringing in new ideas from the private sector; Assist UNISDR’s efforts of capacity-building in disaster-prone areas Review and counsel on UNISDR strategic publications such as the Global Assessment Report; and Support UNISDR to secure the necessary funds from the private sector for future projects

The group is now comprised of 17 private sector members covering a broad range of disaster risk-related areas, including representatives from the insurance, heavy construction materials and information technology industries. They have bimonthly conference call and try to meet at least twice a year.

Second, she began to utilize UNISDR’s biennial “Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction” to further advocate for the goals of UNISDR among key communities, including the private sector. The first session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction took place in June 2007 and brought together governments, NGOs, United Nations organizations, financial institutions, the academic community and the private sector in an effort to become the main global forum addressing issues of disaster risk reduction and challenges in the implementation of the Hyogo Framework. However, at the 2009 session, there were only three representatives from the private sector – and Kiki set out to change this. She explains, “At the 2011 session we had a roundtable on what the private sector can bring to reducing risk. With 300 people from all sectors, it was the largest panel at the event and I was shocked at the dynamism, the questions being asked and ultimately, the proceedings which came out of it.”

The latest session took place in May 2013 and much of it was directly related to the private sector. The Global Platform is one of the largest events of its kind and brought together over 3,000 people including Heads of State, Government Ministers, CEO’s, Academics, Mayors, World Bank & UN Representatives, leading Private Sector Partners, NGO & Community Representatives. This fourth session “Invest Today for a Safer Tomorrow- Resilient People Resilient Planet”, put the private sector center stage as a key actor and vital partner in building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters.

While Kiki’s strategy is beginning to pay off, there have been and continue to be considerable challenges in moving forward, particularly in awareness of UNISDR and moving to the next phase of collaboration. She states, “The main challenge I have is that few people have heard of UNISDR. We have not been good enough at getting our name out there, both externally and also within the United Nations, though this is improving.” She adds UNISDR doesn’t have core budget – it is based only on donations. While the private sector could be a resource in monetary terms which we very much appreciate, they mainly play a huge role in disaster risk reduction by making it a part of business operations. As indicated in the Global Assessment Report, the private sector not only bears the lion’s share of the economic losses of a disaster, but their investments are at stake and, often indirectly, their reputation is at risk with the slightest interruption of their supply chain.”

We need to reframe the need for funding in terms of outcomes. This means it is not about, for example, funding our Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, but about enabling us to inform SMEs in developing countries on the importance of DRR and how collaboration between huge multinationals and small SMEs can work.” However, she emphasizes, “It is a classic chicken or the egg dilemma, she explains, “I could do more if I had some additional staff, but we need to do more first in order to attract more resources.”

Despite the challenges, Kiki remains optimistic. In addition to the upcoming Global Platform, Kiki and the UNISDR Private Sector Advisory Group are currently advocating for the “Call for Action: 5 Essentials for Business in Disaster Risk Reduction”. The goal of this is to:

Promote and develop public-private partnerships for disaster risk reduction to analyze the root causes of continued non-resilient activity. Leverage sectoral private sector expertise and strengths to advance disaster risk reduction and mitigation activities, including enhanced resilience and effective response. Foster a collaborative exchange and dissemination of data: Share information on assessment, monitoring, prediction, forecasting and early warning purposes and action between the public and private sectors. Support national and local risk assessments and socio-economic cost-benefit analyses and capacity-building, and demonstrate opportunities where resilience building and disaster risk reduction is a sound economic strategy, with attractive returns and competitive advantages. Support the development and strengthening of national and local laws, regulations, policies and programs that enhance disaster risk reduction and improve resilience.

Moreover, as the current Hyogo Framework for Action – which assists the efforts of nations and communities to become more resilient to, and cope better with the hazards that threaten their development gains – does not include the private sector. Kiki is working on the need to identify opportunities to incorporate disaster risk reduction in the work of the private sector as part of both the post-2015 agenda as well as the development of the next Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA 2).

In conclusion, while there is much to do, things are moving in the right direction. Kiki states, “The current consultations for the HFA 2, is proving very optimistic as the private sector is taking true ownership. They are discussing practical approaches to make their investments more resilient and they see the need for more holistic risk management approaches throughout their supply chain and through cooperation with the public sector” This upcoming Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction will be a real test of how far we can reach our goals as we are ready to take off.”

For more information, please contact: Kiki Rebecca Lawal, Programme Officer, Business Partnerships, UNISDR.