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    Trading under Duress

     

     
     
    International Trade Forum - Issue 3-4/2008 
     

    © WWI Tie Dye Business in DRC

    When disaster strikes, it's usually up to women to rebuild the necessities of daily life. For many, setting up business in conflict zones is a trading reality. Women with international experience are reaching out with innovative business models to build new skills, seek new orders and create hope for women displaced by war.

    According to the International Rescue Committee, there are currently 35 million people displaced in 24 countries. Millions have had to flee their homes and jobs due to disasters such as drought or coastal flooding. Hundreds of thousands of others have seen their homes bulldozed to make way for dams, airports, highways and other development projects, with little compensation. And the most urgent tasks of rebuilding daily life in a devastated region - such as feeding a family, doing the laundry, shopping for basic necessities and generating income - usually fall to women.

    Poverty and severely limited means of generating income force many internally displaced women into abusive trades such as prostitution and trafficking. In IDP (internally displaced people) camps in Uganda, for example, many girls and women engage in "survival sex" to obtain food or "transactional sex" in exchange for spending money or small objects. These women are given no opportunities to further their education, engage in businesses or develop self-respect.

    Effective aid, training and finance make a difference 

    "We hear much discussion about the front lines of war," says Rania Atalla, executive director for the United States of the Washington DC-based Women for Women International (WWI). "We need to focus more attention on the back-line delivery of peace." WWI works to help women recover from the ravages of war and become active citizens by offering them direct aid, job training and microcredit loans. Ms Atalla, a former communications director for King Abdullah in Jordan, says women are the cornerstones of new economies.

    "Even during conflict, women hold the pieces together and avoid having their families and communities fall apart," she says. "Their resilience allows them to feed their children and send them to school. [It allows them] to venture out of their homes to ensure their family's survival. These very same skills are highly effective when applied in the effort to rebuild economies in post-conflict countries. "The violence and hardship of conflict present the necessity and opportunity for women to become active citizens and step out of their perceived 'traditional' roles. We have seen this in Rwanda where genocide left the country with fewer men than women, and where approximately half of parliamentarians are female. Women can be critical players in rebuilding economies after conflict because they tend to invest their returns into their communities and seek stability," Atalla says.

    New skills kick-start local economies 

    Since 1993, WWI has supported women survivors of war in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Kosovo, Nigeria, Rwanda and Sudan. It has assisted more than 120,000 women, distributed more than $33 million in direct aid and microcredit loans, and helped thousands more to start their own small businesses.

    In Tanzania and Burundi, 13 WWI training centres teach women basic business and marketing skills, while those who need it are taught literacy. "Once a woman learns to read and write in our programme, she can run her own business, and her literacy skills will be passed on to her children," Atalla says. "We provide skills-training in areas ranging from tie-dye to commercial farming, based on detailed market research done in the countries in which we work. One of our aims is to link the income-generating activities of the women to local markets, helping them produce and market their goods. One example is the commercial integrated farming initiative we just started in Rwanda and Sudan. It is very innovative, in that it addresses both income and food security, and has a strong marketing component. Women are not only growing food for their families, but they are also providing produce for local wholesale buyers, including restaurants and hotels.

    "We believe that programmes like this will have a positive effect on local and regional trading. Women are at the forefront. In the Great Lakes region you can witness this every day. Women from eastern Congo cross the border into Rwanda to buy and sell goods in the market despite the tense relationship between both countries. We believe that support to these kinds of cross-border economic activities will ultimately make a contribution toward the well-being and peaceful co-existence of entire communities and societies," says Atalla.

    In a recent academic study involving 41 countries, women accounted for 36% of all entrepreneurs. The percentage of female entrepreneurs ranges from 2% in Japan to 18% in Thailand. It's an exciting trend that many are trying to harness.

    Establishing enterprise, helping recovery 

    Ugandan-American Amber Chand is doing her bit to put war-affected women back to work and start their own businesses. She runs the United States-based Amber Chand Collection (www.amberchand.com), an online gift shop that sells handcrafts produced and sourced from some of the most war-ravaged regions of the world.

    She is currently working closely with women in a large refugee camp in war-torn Darfur, in south-western Sudan. The women are producing hand-woven baskets for export. Many of them work while recovering from militia attacks. "I'm most proud of the Darfur project because it is all happening inside a refugee camp," says Ms Chand. The women have already produced over 600 baskets.

    The Darfur Peace and Development Organization launched a women's rape centre tent. This centre supports women who have been raped and need counselling and education. I suggested that while these women are recovering from their trauma, they create baskets. This is a very powerful way for the women to recover… to take some control back and earn some money. Fifty women are now creating baskets for our gift collection," she says.

    Ms Chand says the inspiration for her work traces back to 1972 when her family was forced to leave Uganda by dictator Idi Amin. "I personally felt so wounded by the horror of the experience that when, years later in 1989, I had a chance to use my business skills to help, I wanted to focus on women in conflict areas," she says. "These crafts become powerful symbols of the culture. We're working in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Iraq, Jordan, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan and Viet Nam."

    A message of hope 

    The Amber Chand Collection was launched three years ago. Israeli/Palestinian candles, its signature product, are made jointly by women surviving on opposite sides of the long-running Middle East conflict. "I tend to work in regions of conflict that are insecure and fragile as well as countries that are a little more stable post-conflict," she says.

    "I want to look at how to stimulate micro-enterprise in these regions."

    Ms Chand collaborates with not-for-profit organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), so she has a good network of well-connected specialists on the ground in each region. They receive a small 5% administrative fee for their work, while 20-25% of total revenue of the company goes back to the artisan.

    "We're dealing with complex logistics and fragile economies but it is not as difficult as many business people would imagine.

    I want to support the women to unleash their entrepreneurial instincts and help them develop a mechanism so they can do business simply. Rather than looking at the aid model or the charity model, we look at the business model," she says.

    Ms Chand would like to see businesses step into the arena and act in a compassionate and humanitarian way that is still fiscally responsible. "We need to invest in the area," she says. "At the moment we're feeling an extraordinary sense of collapse - people are questioning who we are, what we do. We're questioning greed and excess and the short-term goals. It's all imploding. We need to create trusting relationships, value-based relationships.

    "NGOs are sometimes reluctant about getting too involved with the business of doing business. I would love it if the NGO could say, 'Wow! You've got a deadline. We'll jump to it or move quickly.' I'd like them to acknowledge that I have deadlines and that I have products to move. I'd like to see them responding and respecting those pressures.

    "In terms of governments, I would like to see fewer tariffs and taxations placed on the artisans. None of the people I'm working with has had prohibitive taxes placed on them, but they do exist," says Ms Chand. "I'd like to see governments become more pro-entrepreneurial and encourage business activities. Governments need to build partnerships and enterprises, raise awareness and do more educating.

    "We need to create models that support all stakeholders for the common good. It should involve profit-sharing so that the artisans benefit and are not exploited."

    Inspiring projects like these demonstrate the possibilities for trade to build better lives and stronger communities. With extraordinary determination and resilience, these women are fighting against the toughest challenges of conflict, to craft opportunity, self-respect and a sustainable model for future enterprise in developing countries.

     Useful resources 

    Women for Women International
    Amber Chand Collection