Keeping the Economy on the Radar, Even in the Hardest Times

A new job category in Aleppo -- "the crosser" who ferries good across the border under dangerous conditions. (Photo: Syrian Economic Forum)

A new job category in Aleppo — “the crosser” who ferries good across the border under dangerous conditions. (Photo: Syrian Economic Forum)

In Beirut during Lebanon’s civil war, people continued to go to school and attend theater performances. One woman once told me how, to get to her university, she would take a taxi to the line between East and West Beirut, dash to the other side behind overturned trash dumpsters to avoid snipers, and then catch another ride to university — always with a change of clothing in case she could not get home again for a while.

Not every war sees people able to defiantly and bravely continue school and go to the theater, but the story underscores an important point left out of most news reports: conflict is not a permanent state…even during conflict.

Media reports show the most bullet-ridden, shell resounding, civilian-fleeing dramatic moments, but even in situations of all-out war, pockets of fighting revolve and front lines move. Whenever there is a lull in violence, civilians generally try to make life go on as much as they can, however they can. And that includes the economy. Farmers will return to their fields and factories will resume operation as often as possible, and people will buy, sell, and barter what they need to survive. And yes, sometimes they even study for exams by candle in hallways lined with mattresses during shelling (another story I once heard from another Lebanese).

Recently, a group of CIPE staff with experience in conflict-affected settings formed a task force to do some more thinking about CIPE’s own projects in conflict-affected areas. We found it interesting that we work with local groups in areas that range from unstable to war-torn, but that we rarely think of them as “conflict projects” per se. So we started throwing around a lot of questions: is it worth even thinking of our projects through a conflict lens ? (Short answer: yes.) What is our approach to conflict and is it unique? What are the various ways CIPE has either reacted programmatically to conflict, or designed programs to be conflict sensitive?

We’re still thinking, but we have started to articulate what we think we know (more on that at the end of this post). So here it goes…

On the face of it, it can sound a little tone-deaf to be talking about markets, reforms and institutions in the face of a failing state or growing violence. But CIPE believes that there are major benefits to working on economic issues – and with local business people – at almost every stage of a conflict cycle. And once conflict is ended, we think a healthy private-sector-driven economy is one of the most sustainable engines for prosperity that will support reconstruction, help everyday citizens get back on their feet, absorb returning refugees, and help former combatants return to civilian life. We so often hear “let’s just get [elections, refugees, parliament…] sorted out, and then we’ll get to the economy,” but we think the economy should always be on the radar, along with humanitarian responses, political dynamics and everything else.

This perspective leads to a CIPE approach to conflict that we think is a little different than most. On the one hand, we try to help partners develop responses to the immediate realities of conflict, because we know they must, as citizens and as people. Moreover, we have seen business people and private sector groups be important and positive actors during conflict. As long as they can keep up their economic activities, business people can help generate the cash flows that help people survive. They also sometimes have planning and logistics skills that can contribute to crisis and humanitarian response efforts, and at times they bring in valuable material and financial resources as well.

But CIPE also puts an unusual stress on the proactive side and the long game. We have to, because you cannot truly work on deep transformations towards democracy and market reform until there is enough stability. So at the least, we work with partners during conflict situations to metaphorically help “keep the lights on.” We want to help keep business associations, think tanks, and other partner organizations going because they are part of the fabric of civil society. If they can persist through the conflict, they can help keep that fabric together afterwards, when a functioning civil society is most desperately needed.

In some cases, CIPE also helps local organizations play a bridge-building role, keeping lines open and meeting people across various fault lines and keeping people talking. The economy itself is often a good neutral topic that people are willing to discuss even when other issues cannot be on the table. In the best of cases, this also results in their being invited to be part of broader national or international dialogue and peace negotiation efforts.

CIPE also works with groups of business people to develop visions and coherent strategies for reconstruction and reform, so that when peace comes and leaders need ideas, the business community is ready to help jump-start reconstruction and the (re-)formation of political, economic and social institutions. Once rebuilding starts, we then strongly encourage business associations, think tanks and other groups to learn to fill available civic space, become strong voices that advocate for leaders to focus on the economy as well as politics, and propose practical reform solutions based on what people need.

Concretely, these responses takes a variety of forms to account for conflict-affected environments that range from unstable to all-out war. Here are just a few examples:

  • In Mexico, criminal activity in certain regions greatly reduces citizen security, negates the rule of law, and harms business. CIPE is working on a project with private sector actors who greatly reduced violent death in the city of Tijuana by working with a local mayor, and supporting exchanges with other towns to see how this approach could be replicated, and under what circumstances.
  • In Syria, there is all-out conflict with global implications on multiple levels. CIPE helped a group of Syrian business leaders form an economic think tank based in Turkey. Using focal points throughout Syria, they are publishing regular profiles of towns and regions with economic and resource data which humanitarian actors, moderate opposition authorities, and others can use to follow and respond to the situation on the ground. At the same time, the think tank is supporting entrepreneurship training in refugee camps, and has also developed private sector strategies for Syria’s post-conflict future; whenever it comes. The think tank was also instrumental in negotiating Syrian access to an underutilized free-zone in Turkey, which Syrian industries displaced by the conflict can relocate to, and which will generate jobs for Turks and Syrians alike.
  • In Sri Lanka, the civil war ended in 2009, but a transition straight into an authoritarian state prevented the deep reforms that were needed. Then, in January of this year, a shocking snap election replaced the old president with his former (more progressive) ally. CIPE has partnered with a local think tank to help them create real data that will encourage business associations to engage in policy advocacy, and stimulate wider public-private dialogue on economic policies.

Having gone through this initial process of information gathering and reflection,  the CIPE Conflict Taskforce is now trying to decide what to focus on, and in what order. One priority is very clear: we need data, and there seems to be a research gap.

Much of the existing work on the private sector and conflict looks at things like international businesses, foreign direct investment, post-conflict corruption, and similar issues. But at CIPE, we work with and are interested in local business people – the everyday ones, not the cronies. And so far the Conflict Taskforce has not found much about them and how they can either help or cause harm in conflict contexts.

So beyond our own experiences and working theories, we need to see what information we can find – and what we can generate over time – about the local private sector in conflict and its aftermath, and specifically in how it can play a positive role. If you are reading this and you have resources for us, or you are working on this issue, or you are an enterprising student looking for a good research direction, please get in touch! The CIPE Conflict Taskforce wants to hear from you. Get in touch through the comments on this post or send us a Facebook message.

Pamela Beecroft is a Senior Program Officer for North Africa at CIPE.

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