Reflecting on history: Our CEO looks back on Mercy Corps' most pivotal moments

Last updated: September 13, 2019

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  • Mercy Corps CEO Neal Keny-Guyer. PHOTO: Joni Kabana for Mercy Corps

My time as Mercy Corps’ CEO has been an incredible journey, one in which I have had the privilege of leading the organization through growth, change and taking a stand against some of the most complex challenges of our time.

It has been more than 20 years since my first day on the job, and much has changed since then — we’re bigger, we’ve learned a great deal and the world is a different place. But many things have stayed the same. Mercy Corps was built on the ideals of peace and justice, and on the belief that an individual can make a difference.

I’m proud to say that spirit still continues today, even as our organization has grown to a team of over 5,500 people working in more than 40 countries around the world.

I couldn’t possibly recount all my memories from this time with Mercy Corps, but there are several moments that stand out as pivotal times for the organization — junctures in history that demanded a response, challenged us to rise to the occasion and allowed us to be there for people in need. Critical times like these are often what give us the energy and motivation to continue doing what we do.

Learn about some of these decisive periods in our history below, and find out what they meant for me, the Mercy Corps team and our mission to change the world for the better.

Responding to the Balkans crisis in the 1990s

A young boy stands in front of damaged property in war-torn Kosovo. PHOTO: Gorm Gaare for Mercy Corps, 2000

For Mercy Corps and certainly in my tenure as its leader, the conflict in the Balkans, with special reference to Kosovo, was profound. The war there was fueled by complex politics, religious rivalries, historic grievances and a changing world. And those factors characterize so many of the places where we continue to work today.

Daily rations are unloaded at a food distribution center in Kosovo. PHOTO: Chris Hondros for Mercy Corps, 1999

Over the years — starting with our humanitarian response to conflict in Kosovo — Mercy Corps has developed an ability to work within complex crises to build stability by addressing the root causes of conflict. We may not have called it that in those days, but that’s what it was — we were meeting urgent needs while providing support so opposing religious, political and ethnic groups could see a common future together.

Our work on this crisis also led to our merger with another organization, Scottish European Aid, which is now our European headquarters!

Committing to programming in Afghanistan

A woman learns tailoring through one of our livelihood programs in Helmand, Afghanistan. For many women we work with in the region, the opportunity for education is new. PHOTO: Toni Greaves for Mercy Corps, 2012

There were few other agencies in Afghanistan when we began work there, and I think that speaks volumes about the complexities of the environment. We’ve learned a number of lessons by taking it on, but first and foremost is there are no simple solutions. There are no quick fixes to complex crises, in Afghanistan or anywhere else. You have to be committed for the long-term and recognize there will be ups and downs as part of that experience.

A group of men work on an agriculture project in Afghanistan. Increasing farmers’ production, improving environmental conservation and introducing solar power are just some of our interventions in the country. PHOTO: Cassandra Nelson for Mercy Corps, 2007

The events of 9/11 were an especially powerful influence on our presence there. We had already been positioned in Afghanistan for a number of years and had managed to do our work even with the Taliban in charge of the whole country.

Because of this, we were prepared — and we had a responsibility — to keep up with the increased attention and resources focused on Afghanistan after the attacks in the U.S. It challenged us to grow our capacity and uphold our pledge to build more peaceful, just communities — for as long as it takes.

Building our presence in Africa

Our water rehabilitation project has given tens of thousands of people access to clean water in the Democratic Republic of Congo. PHOTO: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps, 2015

Africa is the largest region of the world we work in today, in terms of team members, overall budget and number of countries. But that wasn't true many years ago.

We started in places where poor governance, conflict, extreme poverty and, often, a strained ecosystem, all collide. And we began wanting to address long-standing grievances in the most critical and tough places on the continent. All these years later, I am amazed when I think about the team we have assembled and the work we are now doing in so many important areas.

TOP: Women drag jerry cans of water across a barren landscape in the Horn of Africa, which was devastated by drought in 2011. PHOTO: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps, 2011
BOTTOM: Ashe and her children stand in the middle of a displacement camp in Dikwa, Nigeria, where Mercy Corps is providing shelter to people forced from their homes by Boko Haram. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps, 2018

Having a presence in Africa has allowed us to respond to urgent humanitarian emergencies, like the Darfur conflict, the 2011 Horn of Africa hunger crisis and mass displacement caused by Boko Haram in Nigeria.

It has also positioned us to be on the forefront of life-changing development work, including rehabilitating the water system in Goma, the capital city of North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo; building civic engagement and employment for youth in Kenya; and empowering girls to delay marriage in Niger.

Hassia, 12, in her family’s home in rural Niger. Our work helps families there grow more food and earn more income, and supports girls to attend school, build independence and delay marriage. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps, 2018

And there is so much more that’s possible. I’m optimistic about the future. Africa is a special place with a ton of talent. With a little bit of support, people in Africa will pioneer solutions and innovations that will help the rest of the world be a better place.

Supporting recovery after the Indian Ocean tsunami

Masjida and her son, Hendra, lost their home and all their possessions in the Indian Ocean tsunami. Mercy Corps was one of the first humanitarian organizations to arrive in their remote village in Indonesia after the storm. PHOTO: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps, 2005

Another point of significance for Mercy Corps was the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. It was so powerful. Its impact stretched from Thailand, to some of the Indian islands and all the way to the coast of Africa, but it greatly affected Indonesia.

We were already doing significant programming there and we had strong leadership on the ground, so we were able to respond quickly. We were one of the first teams to reach hard-hit Aceh province. And of course we responded with lifesaving, emergency aid, but this was one of the first times we shifted to market-based recovery right away, meaning using cash and livelihood support to stimulate the economy and promote quicker and more substantial recovery.

The tsunami’s destruction in Indonesia. The disaster caused $10 billion in damage and killed more than 227,000 people. PHOTO: Cate Gillon for Mercy Corps, 2005

We determined we can be most effective when we save lives while simultaneously restoring markets. It’s important to do those things simultaneously, not sequentially. We led the way treating market recovery that way, and it was an approach that informed the whole relief and development community.

That event was the precursor to today, to our heavy focus on distributing cash as a pathway to early recovery and, eventually, financial inclusion and a stronger future.

Responding to the Syria crisis

A Mercy Corps team member speaks with Mariam, a Syrian refugee. Tens of millions of people have been affected since war erupted in Syria in 2011. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps, 2017

The escalation of the Syria conflict has been a consequential period for the world. Moments like these either bring out your best or worst, and I think it has brought out the best in Mercy Corps’ work.

When this crisis took hold in 2011 we already had a history in the Middle East, and we recognized what could happen in Syria. We positioned a team there in a number of critical areas very early on, and we became a major leader in the response.

Our early action gave us the ability to hire incredible Syrian team members, which provided knowledge and local relationships that were vital to ensuring we could provide aid in a secure, accountable way and support people who were extremely hard to reach because of insecurity.

Over half the pre-war population of Syria is in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 6 million are displaced inside the country, while around 5.6 million people have fled to neighboring countries, seeking refuge in communities and camps, like Jordan’s Zaatari camp. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps, 2017

That network and local insight also laid the foundation for us to scale up to a massive cross-border response when people began fleeing to different countries and the needs in the region grew exponentially.

Our Syria response, which has turned into an unprecedented level of programming for Mercy Corps, also proved the importance of taking prudent risk. Many people said responding in Syria wasn’t possible because of the chance of corruption and other diversions. But we put checks in place, to an extensive degree, and our success has been remarkable.

I believe our job is to make a difference, and in some situations, such as the Syria crisis, you can't make a difference if you are not prepared to take those kinds of risks and push boundaries.

Looking ahead

Paola, 9, lives with her family in Colombia after fleeing crisis in Venezuela. Our past experience, team members and our network of supporters continue to prepare us — every day — to help families like hers survive and forge better futures. PHOTO: Ezra Millstein/Mercy Corps, 2019

All of these moments — and so many more — are incredible reminders of why we do this work. As I recount them, I am profoundly grateful for so many things.

I am grateful we have the chance every day to get up and make a difference in the world. I am grateful for the incredible people we meet on the frontlines of hardship all the time — their spirit, their grace, their resilience.

I am grateful for an incredible Mercy Corps team, but I am also incredibly grateful for the many partners and supporters we have around the world who make our efforts possible. We have so much more to accomplish together — this is just the beginning.

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