Vodafone helps restore family links in DRC – real commitment or publicity stunt?

I recently got contacted by Ogilvy who wanted me to look at a project that Vodafone is running in a refugee camp near Goma. I remain sceptical, yet think that this is also a good example of the role that the private sector can play in emergencies.

Vodafone is offering refugees in the camp free phone calls of up to five minutes a day. Below is a video that shows the project:

Here are my thoughts: when I worked for ICRC in Liberia in 2011, we also enabled refugees to make phone calls to their loved ones. I will never forget how important it was for people to be able to do that, particularly if they hadn’t been able to tell them yet where they were. But we never had enough phones or enough time.

If a telecommunications company can provide this service for free, then I think this is great for that community, however I have a few concerns:

It seems like Vodafone is doing this without coordinating with other, similar activities, like WFPs mobile phone charging stations. At least their PR agency was not able to find out anything about them coordinating with anyone, which is why I assume it is not happening.

However, my biggest concern is that this could just be a PR stunt. After all this is part of Vodafone’s “first time” campaign and they are clearly doing this primarily to look good and not because they care deeply about the refugees. The good news is that Vodafone has apparently decided to extend the project from the initially planned three months to an unspecified amount of time. I find this very reassuring – since it should not only be about a “first” call – however there are currently no plans to extend the service to other camps in the area, which seems very arbitrary.

If they stick with it and if they were to expand this service to other refugee camps, it would no longer look like they were exploiting people’s fate for an emotional marketing pitch that in my opinion also has an undertone of portraying the refugees as uncivilized people who marvel at technology.

I understand that the ultimate goal of corporate social responsibility is to benefit the company. That is one of the big differences between CSR and humanitarian assistance. which supposedly is only looking at needs. However, what I just said about humanitarian assistance should also come with a caveat since many (government) donors also use their money to further their national interests.

I think a project like the one that Vodafone is running in Mugunga camp is a good example of how the private sector can be involved and make a real difference in the lives of refugees, but it needs to be a lasting and sustained commitment, else it’s just a cynical photo-op.