The resilience we don’t talk about

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Recent facts in Afghanistan have shocked the entire world and left everyone wonder what the future holds for those left under the new-born Taliban regime. Such extremist organizations in power tarnish social rights, equal opportunities, and as a consequence also the chance to develop innovation and new ideas that can improve society.

Unless they don’t, thanks to those individuals who still find the courage and strength to build something positive and make the best out of a prohibitive context. Of course, this is not just about Afghanistan – which is at the moment the most visible example – it is about any area that suffers a serious and recurring threat of political violence, oppression, and terrorism.

Encouraging the creation of new business has traditionally been a tool to promote peace-building processes and more in general to defuse violence and build stability. The global and ever growing tech wave that we are experiencing in current times is a positive vector for this, as in the case of the Syrian platform BitCode, whose mission is to teach the youth how to code in different languages.

BitCode itself was the reason for the creation of 150 new start-ups in the country. Initiatives like these can give back a glimpse of hope even in the toughest conflict areas; however, it must be understood that this is only one step towards a better future and it needs to go hand-in-hand with other initiatives.

For instance, both public and private sectors need to create support channels for those affected by the violence, so that they can start to reconcile a difficult past with a chance for a better future. This translates into mental health services, mentoring programmes, and actions to avoid the marginalization of certain parts of the population.

Still the question remains of how to build a new business in such unfavourable conditions. Among the biggest impediments to creating new value – apart from the violence itself – are issues such as corruption, weak institutions, and lack of access to basic resources such as funding and critical infrastructure (e.g., electricity).

On top of this, there can be discrimination towards business owners belonging to a specific gender or sexual orientation, ethnic minority, or social group. Community-building and networking are a necessary condition to overcome such obstacles, as proven by the success story of the Afghan entrepreneur Kamila Sidiqi. She set up a company, Kaweyan Business Development Services, with the goal to teach leadership and management skills to those that had no access to training in rural areas. This allowed her to train thousands of aspiring professionals, mostly women, and later expanded the business to include more services.

She then continued to support small businesses in Afghanistan as leader in NGOs and professional associations such as Hand in Hand Afghanistan and Leading Entrepreneurs of Afghanistan Development (LEAD). Finally, she took on institutional roles such as Chief of Staff and Deputy Minister for Trade in the Afghan government.

Another inspiring story of personal and business resilience comes from the story of Afghan Dreamers, a robotics team composed by six Afghan girls between 14 and 18 years old who started developing ventilators for patients suffering from Covid-19 using artificial intelligence. They recently went on to take part to a US competition, attracting media attention and secure further resources to continue their work.

Interestingly, they looked for open-source designs of ventilators from MIT and managed to replicate them, which is a testament to the importance of sharing knowledge online to boost community response to a crisis across the globe. It is worth noting that the Afghan Dreamers received inspiration and mentorship by Roya Mahboob, a pioneer entrepreneur in the country and CEO of Afghan Citadel Software Company – which helps students get jobs in tech. She was also among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2013.

Moving across the MENA region, the power of business hubs is also very present in Israel, which has one of the most flourishing start-up communities in the world. An excellent example is that of SOSA, a centre with locations in Tel Aviv, London, and New York that since 2015 is active in promoting start-ups while also providing services for larger companies.

Furthermore, the Israeli business field also benefits from foreign support, as is the case with Italian energy giant ENI that actively scouts for innovative businesses in the country and provides funding and resources for the most interesting ideas.

These stories should encourage a reflection in the resilience world. When we discuss organizational resilience, we mostly discuss about well-structured organizations with the resources and potential to apply international best practices if they really commit. Implementing sound enterprise risk management and business continuity management systems is often a matter of directing resources well rather than acquiring them.

Overall, the conversation on operational resilience is now quite mature and yet the community has so far failed to address the issue of small businesses in general, let alone those in conflict areas. To me, this raises a number of questions:

  • Is it perhaps time we reflected on what resilience looks like for everyone and not just for large companies?
  • Where is inclusion if small businesses – which make up the majority of businesses worldwide – are cut out from the discussion?
  • Is the discussion driven by financial interests (small companies tend not to invest in resilience systems)?
  • What is the real “resilience appetite” of small businesses? How much is a start-up really willing to invest in resilience?

Thus far, most resilience stories of small businesses or start-ups – especially those operating under unfavourable circumstances – mainly derive from their own ability to adjust and change, coming up with new solutions. It is important we understand whether there is more we can do as a community and accept perhaps to empathize and learn from those who had to embrace resilience without having been trained on how to do it.

The lack of a serious and informed discussion on this topic is not something to neglect. According to the World Bank, SMEs constitute the majority of organizations worldwide, accounting for 90% of them and providing more than half the jobs across the globe. Especially in emerging economies, SMEs represent 70% of the jobs and yet they often lack the proper resources and conditions to develop their business activities. The financing gap for such companies is as high as $5 trillion per year, above all in regions such as Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa, with a gap above 85%.

For years there has been an implicit understanding within the resilience community that SMEs cannot have crisis management systems that are as well-organised and structured as large organizations; instead, they must rely on agility, creativity, improvisation, and more often than not personal resources. Resilience systems have traditionally been tailored to large enterprises, even if this was not the original intention.

It is rare that small business owners are involved in international discussions or in drafting international guidelines, which therefore feel unsuitable to those in a tech start-up, a restaurant, or a small medical practice for example. And if the discourse on resilience doesn’t fit 9 out of 10 companies and half the workforce globally, probably there is need for a review. In conclusion, the following thinking points might be worth considering in order to build a more inclusive debate in our community, which has achieved tremendous progress but still has a long road ahead:

  • Are SMEs compatible with the current resilience debates?
  • Do the guidelines suit small business owners?
  • Are there examples of SMEs successfully applying BCM or risk management systems?
  • If yes, what convinced them to adopt them?
  • What can we learn from resilient SMEs during a crisis? What is their role within society?
  • How can we include the lessons learned by SMEs in the larger narrative on operational resilience?

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Credits for the image to Shamsia Hassani.