Humanitarian Aid and Development as a Profitable Enterprise

Ikea as Humanitarian and Urban Planner?
Years ago, I was asked to write an essay for a class on Architectural Conservation.  We had a guest lecture by renown American architectural historian Patrick Snadon who discussed the issues of preserving ugly modernist buildings in contemporary cities, and we were asked to write a reaction to the topic.  My own paper focused on the economic issues in preserving American architecture, as so often city, state and federal governments are asked to inject funds to preserve historic sites when such funds simply never exist.  I suggested that preservationists could utilize more accessible tools, to perhaps utilize strategies that engage the private sector rather than the public.  Sports stadiums, football games, and city plazas typically have corporate sponsors, such as FedEx Field in Maryland and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.   Large, wealthy companies vie for the opportunity to sponsor popular sports facilities and in the end, everybody wins.

So why not do this with historic buildings or entire neighborhoods?  Why couldn't Procter & Gamble initiate a large-scale urban development effort?   Private companies have explored this in the past, such as when Walt Disney led the design and planning of Celebration, Florida.  Such actions would facilitate brand loyalty, the companies could plan to include programs to increase their recruiting pool - such as special academic programs in schools that focus on product design or computer programming - and governments are less strained.   Again, everybody wins.

Ikea's Town Plan, London UK
A few weeks ago I read about the massive retailer IKEA pursuing an urban development scheme in London, exploring town planning and development with real-estate company LandProp.  Although some may find it outrageous, I greatly applaud IKEA's interest in expanding their penchant for refined design and cost-cutting production into the domain of urban development. Notably, this new town will not include an IKEA retailer.  Around the same time, I also learned about a large grant from IKEA of 62 Million USD provided to UNHCR for development purpose in the Dadaab refugee camps.  So what does this mean?

Like the idea I had in grad school about corporations spearheading architectural preservation and urban development, I ask why can't this happen within humanitarian aid and international development?  Why is it the sole responsibility of cash-strapped governments and NGOs to aid those in need, to overcome poverty, and to develop sustainable economies of scale?  In many ways, the idea of doing this without financial stakeholders is absolutely ludicrous.  If a company such as Ikea were willing to invest in the reconstruction of a city such as Kabul,  the environmental development of Hargeissa Somaliland, or to invest in a neighborhood in Detroit, they could access a massive labor-pool, expand their customer base with deeply-rooted brand loyalty, and lock themselves into a more profitable future. 

What I think is critical, is that this process does not need to be philanthropic.  Not everyone needs to be the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  It could be a profitable enterprise.  The risk is that we would live in a world where every city, town, and street would be named after Gilette razor-blades, Ivory Soap, and CocaCola but then again, we already live in a world where professional sports and entertainment are dominated by the same vestiges of capitalism.  Buses and subways are covered in advertising, and movies feature endless product placements.  Would it actually be all that different?

So in the end, I ask if it is time to radically upgrade how humanitarian aid and development is undertaken.  If laissez-faire ideologies are going to dominate the global economy, then why not utilize their embedded leverage, to push for the expansion of corporations to integrate all facets of daily life.  

Admittedly the concept goes against my own personal sensibilities. Maybe its a bad idea, maybe it would create an international catastrophe of unparalleled proportion, but then again, maybe it could work.