With a little help, social enterprises can help rebuild countries overrun by conflict
Richard McEachran, Guardian Professional
Social entrepreneurship can help to meet the demand for jobs that is at the heart of many protests. Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
The desire of the disenfranchised for change and sustainable markets is at the heart of conflict. The Arab spring in Tunisia was triggered by a street vendor setting himself on fire in protest at unfair working conditions. Mass demonstrations usually demand increased employment opportunities and wages, and a job market free from corruption. Thousands of young people wanting to be heard turn to social media.
In August 2011, several months after the start of the uprising in Syria, a hashtag (#RamadanMassacre) gained popularity on Twitter. One user wrote: "A tweet can prevent a massacre"; to which an NPR (National Public Radio) journalist, replied, "Can it?".
Social media may have a limited impact, but social entrepreneurship can both channel the passion shown through so-called "clicktivism" and improve employment opportunities that protests are demanding.
These young people are already entrepreneurial-minded, as they are driven by the determination to fight for a better future – a future that, once the dust has settled and the violent tension has eased, is sustainable. However, there is a glut of issues that can hold social entrepreneurs back, such as government nepotism, bribery, fluctuating levels of enforcement and repression, fear of intimidation and death threats. Yet it is the lack of funding and the skills required to run a social enterprise that arguably pose the biggest obstacle.
"[Those empowered to make a change] come from different backgrounds and aren't [always] experienced in social work or community organising," says Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of HarassMap, an Egyptian crowdsourcing tool that collates and maps data on sexual harassment through SMS reporting. It is part of the Nahdet El Mahrousa network, an organisation that trains social entrepreneurs and helps develop projects from an idea to a full-scale programme.
"They are passionate but sometimes lack the skills to generate efficient outcomes like strategic planning, or monitoring and evaluation. Many of them learn on their feet, but along the way some of them get frustrated and stop working," adds Chiao.
With youth unemployment across countries like Egypt, Somalia and Syria still hovering between 60% and 70%, there has never been a more relevant time to encourage social entrepreneurship. In some developing countries, where there is no central government stable enough to accept foreign aid, it can be responsible for up to 90% of job creation.
Aside from talk of social entrepreneurship inspiring a generation, it can bring dozens of other, more practical, benefits too. It can play a role in furthering reconstruction and establishing credible institutions that give people living in conflict-affected societies a sense of ownership; it can increase their faith in the political and economic system; and it can discourage the return of armed conflict – which is important given that roughly 40% of post-conflict countries return to arms within 10 years.
"If you want to spur entrepreneurship you can have an immediate impact by addressing key barriers: lack of capacity and lack of access to finance. One of the major barriers is the limited managerial and technical capacity of most entrepreneurs in the country - for example, many don't know how to do cash-flow analysis or even how to write an effective business plan," explains Mohamed Ali, founder of the Iftiin Foundation, which provides young people with the training and mentoring needed to launch their own social ventures – similar to Nahdet El Mahrousa. Ali is a fellow at the Aspen Institute who fled Somalia with his family during the civil war. "The second barrier is capital: in these regions, few entrepreneurs can finance their own initiatives, even if they have an ambitious idea with potential."
Acquiring capital and external support can be tricky. Donors may be wary of getting involved in an enterprise that may be affiliated with particular social movements, such as women's rights, while government funding itself can be held up or rejected by the necessary ministry approvals – this, Chiao says, causes "a high degree of unpredictability and delays in work". And in some countries that lack banking systems, such as Somalia, up to 80% of social entrepreneurs may rely on remittances from family or friends.
NGOs can have a critical role to play, but can also struggle to have a real impact. According to Scott Gilmore, chief executive of Building Markets, not all understand social entrepreneurship very well. "This is partly why, over the last 50 years of aid programming, much of the donor money … has had little effect" he says.
Building Markets is a social enterprise that connects entrepreneurs, creates jobs and works towards sustaining peace in developing countries. Gilmore recognises that sustaining market opportunities is key, and that NGOs can help through partnering social investment programmes such as Shell Intilaaqah.
Social investment programmes encourage frameworks to be maintained and support mechanisms to be developed, which Chiao believes is crucial if young people's passion to make a difference is to be sustained. "If they become discouraged, there is a risk that they'll go back to the old attitude of feeling powerless as individuals, and disengagement from shaping their own society's future," she says.
"They need mentors who can help guide them in launching their own enterprises, and they need capital they can use to build their businesses," adds Ali. "With this support, they can be the agents of change that can help rebuild countries."