Why Entrepreneurship Is Only Sometimes Good for Peace and Stability

How can countries that are affected by conflict – such as Syria, Ethiopia, Yemen, Myanmar, and Afghanistan – be helped? Increasingly, the answer to this question is not only framed in terms of externally provided humanitarian aid from governments and NGOs in the form of food, shelter, and supplies. Humanitarian activities are increasingly being channeled toward supporting entrepreneurship in conflict-affected regions. By supporting entrepreneurs, external actors hope to promote employment, income generation, and innovation, and in so doing offer a more sustainable and longer lasting form of support. The idea on the surface seems great, but does it always work? Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is only sometimes good for peace and stability, and our paper in Business & Society, entitled “Entrepreneurship, Conflict, and Peace: The Role of Inclusion and Value Creation,” is seeking to understand why.

Battered Lebanese flag
(Photo: Jay Joseph, Business-in-Conflict Research Group (BICAR), American University of Beirut)

Conflict regions don’t only experience violence. The people who live in conflict regions are also harmed by institutional voids as well as by corruption, illegal activity, and social divides that drive various actors toward destructive practices – which more often than not, are advanced by the governing bodies that control conflict-affected territories. These norms filter down to entrepreneurial activities. On the extreme end of the scale, conflict zones host some of the most predatory enterprises in the world today – enacting human rights and labor violations which then exploit the workers, customers, resources, and citizens who live in such areas. An everyday entrepreneur who is affected by conflict may also simply refuse to engage with members of different social groups, choosing instead to keep operations and profits to themselves – which can further enhance social division. On the flip side, some scholars have also identified pro-peace entrepreneurs who are able to grow their businesses while at the same time build alliances and productive relationship across social divides – raising themselves and their locales above past hurts, reactionary hate, and instilled prejudices to promote stability within a conflict region.

With such extremes in outcomes from conflict-zone entrepreneurship present, it is important to ask if the humanitarian sector is making sure that it supports only those entrepreneurs who are able and willing to promote sustainable peace. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Since the turn of the millennia, the United Nations and other non-government actors have been able to secure major funding for business-based support programs to stabilize conflict-affected regions. How do they choose particular entrepreneurs for financial or material support? In general, there are two factors: (1) vulnerability, the degree to which an entrepreneur is affected by conflict, and (2, although not in all cases) the ability of the entrepreneur to grow their business.

We argue that measures for selecting entrepreneurs to support are insufficient from a peace-positive perspective. In order to foster truly sustainable peace, support should be given to entrepreneurs who demonstrate two pro-peace elements: (1) inclusive practices that demonstrate abilities to engage other social groupings in sourcing, employment, and other business relationships, and (2) the ability to generate economic and social value through responsible business practices. By supporting such entrepreneurs, stability and sustainable peace is more likely as compared with current practices that may be directing humanitarian funds toward entrepreneurs who (intentionally or unintentionally) perpetuate violence and division.

Our work challenges the meta-narratives present among some scholars and humanitarian actors that supporting business in conflict zones is fundamentally peace-positive. This is far from the truth, and we challenge researchers, funding bodies, and practitioners on the ground to push the boundaries of our understanding about conflict dynamics to better support the pro-peace actors who can bring stability to the conflicts we see around us. 

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Harry Van Buren, III and Jay Joseph

Harry J. Van Buren III (pictured) is the Barbara and David A. Koch Endowed Chair of Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business. Before coming to St. Thomas, he served on the faculties of the University of New Mexico and the American University of Beirut. Jay Joseph (Phd 2017, UniSA) is an Assistant Professor at the American University of Beirut, focused on the role of entrepreneurship/business in peace & development.

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