Global infrastructure consultant Arcadis has joined forces with the United Nations in a humanitarian programme that makes use of its professional skills, as Margo Cole discovers.
Most companies, whatever their size, encourage their employees to get involved in charitable activities, or to donate to worthwhile causes. But the larger the company gets, the more pressure there is to coordinate those activities.
This is the situation consultancy Arcadis found itself in, as 20 years of concerted growth have taken it to the point where it now has 22,000 staff working from 300 offices in 40 countries. That growth includes acquisitions around the world, including in 2011 that of UK cost consultant EC Harris.
The Netherlands-based firm is listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange, which makes it all the more important that corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities are well thought through, says Arcadis senior urban planning consultant Bert Smolders.
“When the company was growing, it became important to have a CSR programme that can be clearly communicated to stockholders,” he explains. “Before, there were a lot of different causes for sponsoring, and every company had its own sponsorship. They were all very good, but as we became global, it was important that we have a strategy.”
The company set two parameters for deciding what organisation to support: it had to be global, to reflect Arcadis’ global presence, and it had to be related to the company’s key areas of expertise.
“That’s very important,” says Smolders. “It is not only possible to sponsor in money, but especially in work that we’re doing.”
The organisation that fitted the bill was the United Nations (UN) - specifically UN-Habitat, which has a mandate to promote public policy and public and private investment to make cities and towns more socially inclusive, economically dynamic and environmentally sound.
“UN-Habitat was looking for partners,” explains Smolders. “They want to involve the private sector more. It is an aim of [UN secretary-general] Ban Ki-moon, because the private sector is the major player in development in the world, so they should be involved.”
For Arcadis it is important that this is a specific programme that involves the staff at the core of the company
Arcadis and UN-Habitat agreed a five year partnership, called the Shelter programme, which aims to improve the quality of life in rapidly growing cities around the world. Arcadis provides pro bono expertise for UN-Habitat projects, as well as financial sponsorship for World Urban Campaign, a UN-Habitat initiative to increase awareness and knowledge of better urban solutions. The Shelter programme also gets financial support from Arcadis’ largest shareholder, the Lovinklaan Foundation.
Since the programme began in 2010, more than 120 Arcadis experts have provided their skills, usually going on short term “missions” to project locations or sharing knowledge through workshops.
Experts have worked in a wide range of locations, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Senegal and Costa Rica.
“Our first objective was that we deliver to UN-Habitat the highest possible expertise,” says Smolders, who is Arcadis Shelter programme manager. “I think that’s the responsibility we have to UN-Habitat and for the people who we work for in the places where people need it most.
“For Arcadis it is important that this is a specific programme that involves the staff at the core of the company,” he adds.
A lot of money was flowing in, but sometimes it is a question of where to spend it
UN-Habitat’s regional offices identify where Arcadis’ professional expertise would be valuable - often a municipality that needs help with a specific problem. Skills in demand include urban planning, water management, sanitation, ecology, environment, infrastructure, finance and organisation.
Although the programme was specifically set up to help with long term development, rather than emergency response, Arcadis experts can be mobilised quickly if the situation demands. An example is the Philippines city of Tacloban, which was hit by a typhoon last November. Under the Shelter programme, Arcadis experts were on the ground within three weeks of the typhoon, helping the city authority to plan the redevelopment.
“We’ve had several missions [there], because in such a situation it is not only necessary to provide tents but also to know as soon as possible where people can be re-housed - to get people out of danger zones,” says Smolders. “A lot of money was flowing in, but sometimes it is a question of where to spend it.”
A follow-up mission in February saw a team that included Arcadis urban planners, civil engineers and water specialists from Brazil, the US, the Netherlands and the Philippines presenting a masterplan for the city to the mayor of Tacloban at a meeting attended by 1,000 people.
The company keeps a database of staff willing and suitable to work on the programme, which is supplemented by internal advertising whenever a project comes up. “People can apply by sending their resumé and explaining their motivation and telling why they have the right quality,” says Smolders. “It’s important that when we send people they’re the best for the job.”
Although expertise is essential, it is not just the company’s senior staff who take part in the programme. “They can be young or older,” says Smolders. “When you have a team, there are always different roles, so people with less experience can provide support.
“People are extremely positive about their experience. They feel really motivated to work for the project, but also motivated to work for the company,” he adds.
First hand experience
Arcadis engineer Patrick Buijs was a member of the team that went to the Philippines in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, and returned earlier this year for a follow-up mission. He specialises in water supply and sanitation, and coastal engineering.
“The first mission was a survival mission,” he says. “We had to arrange everything ourselves - the electricity, telephones, office space. We didn’t really know what to expect. There was no one to ask or get assistance from.
“When we arrived in Manila, we took part in a big briefing with all UN agencies. It was evening and it was very dark. There was no street lighting, no telephones. We spent a lot of time just arranging for our own basic needs. It’s our policy not to take food away from the people we are there to help, so we did a big shop at the supermarket and took suitcases of food with us from Manila to the affected areas, Tacloban and Guiuan.
“The camp where we stayed had a team of specialists working together, civil engineers, water specialists, urban planners and others.
“Our focus was working with the captains of the barangays, the term for village, district or ward. They ranged from 10 families to 400 people. We spent each day speaking to the barangay captains to assess their needs. Some barangays had extremely pressing needs - no fresh water or food.
“Our focus was on water assessment. We looked at wells, to see if they could be used. We checked the safety of the water. In the evenings at the camp, we met with all the aid workers - medical, education, protection teams from various agencies, including the Red Cross, Oxfam, and the UN. We arranged the next day’s activities and made sure the needs were being met.
“The second mission was completely different. We had telephones. We had laptops. There was office space. We were assisting the municipalities by developing plans, for example, creating no build zones to prevent future flooding, as well as urban planning and more efficient water delivery systems.
“The work we did relied heavily on the skills we use in our day-to-day jobs in terms of content, but of course the conditions are completely different. You have to react quickly. You need people who know how to do this, but you have to do it very fast.”