Businesses and specialists discuss learning from COVID-19 to build economic resilience in displacement settings

29 September 2020
ITC News

Online event hears strategies from displacement experts and entrepreneurs around the world, including from Botswana, Colombia, Gaza, and Kenya

The international community can assist entrepreneurs in displacement settings to recover from COVID-19 and prepare for future shocks through adaptation, digitization, and cooperation.

That was the conclusion of “Perspectives on Economic Resilience for Business in Displacement: Lessons learned from COVID-19 to prepare for future shocks”, an ITC online event that heard from entrepreneurs in Botswana, Colombia, Gaza, and Kenya held on 3 September 2020.

‘Displaced communities are particularly vulnerable to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak as they live in fragile settings with limited access to water, sanitation systems and health facilities,’ ITC Deputy Executive Director Dorothy Tembo said.

‘This has an economic impact as safety measures and lockdowns have restricted people from leaving their homes, which inevitably affects their ability to work and earn an income, making trade-led and market-based solutions to displacement more important than ever.’

Adapting to new circumstances

Agang K. Ditlhogo, founder of The Clicking Generation, a technology academy for disadvantaged youth and children in Botswana, said she had told businesses to use the lockdown to prepare for future shocks.

“When fishermen cannot go to the sea, they mend their nets,” she said.

Caroline Njuki, a chief technical advisor at International Labour Organization (ILO), said that business communities in Kenyan refugee settings had been hard hit.

She said many micro, small and medium-sized enterprises in Kenyan refugee settings operated informally and lacked access to business support or finance. Besides, many businesses in refugee-hosting regions supply restaurants that had had to close during lockdowns.

Ms. Njuki said that displaced communities and their vulnerabilities must count in responses to COVID-19 at the policy level.

Jean-Marc Dewerpe, EUTF Trust Fund Manager for the Sahel and Lake Chad for the European Commission Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, said that adaptation to the circumstances was crucial to the European Union’s recovery programming.

For example, small and medium-sized enterprises that had to close during lockdowns were being targeted for assistance while finance was being allocated to help businesses in fragile settings recover, Mr. Dewerpe said.

Filling the technology gap

Freelancers at the meeting explained the benefits of working online and provided examples of how entrepreneurs can prepare for unforeseen restrictions.

Ahmed Saleh is a digital marketer from conflict-affected Gaza who sells his services to international clients online. He said he had been restricted from going to his workspace and had limited access to electricity at home during the lockdown. Close client relationships from before the pandemic helped him to carry on working.

Long before the pandemic broke out, Mohamed Omar Hassan, Chairman of the Dadaab Collective Online Freelancing Agency in Kenya, recommended that freelancers invest in the equipment they need to work from home and be available to clients throughout the day. Such investments paid off after movement restrictions were placed in the refugee camp where Hassan lives, preventing freelancers from visiting the local co-working space.

Patricia Letayf is co-founder of Five One Labs, a start-up incubator in the Kurdish region of Iraq that supports entrepreneurs in displacement and conflict settings in the area.

“We emphasize the digital aspect of their work, and help them digitize,” she said, adding that Five One Labs, too, had had to go digital to adapt to the pandemic.

Cooperating at all levels

Several speakers shared the need for cooperation at all levels, from international cooperation to cooperatives of business owners.

Angela Ospina, Director General of the Presidential Cooperation Agency of Colombia (APC), the country with the world’s highest number of internally displaced persons, highlighted the importance of international cooperation when supporting businesses in territories affected by conflict in Colombia.

“International cooperation has played a role of support to many of the micro and small enterprises of the victims of displacement with projects that contribute to mitigating the impact on this population,” she said. She added that adaptability also had played a significant role in this work during the changing landscape of COVID-19.

Also from Colombia was Juan Fajardo, Tahiti lime producer and legal representative of the farmers’ association Frutas Verdes del Patía, who participated from the rural area El Rosario, Nariño.

He explained that his business had performed exceptionally during the pandemic. Being part of a cooperative had allowed him to gain certifications, create international partnerships and meet increased demand from supermarkets throughout lockdown.

Sharing best practices

Ms. Ospina said that knowledge exchange is vital for businesses to recover − so crucial that, in some instances, it weighed more than access to finance.

Ashish Shah, ITC’s Director of Country Programmes, concluded that sharing lessons across sectors and regions is a significant part of strengthening the global response to displacement through trade. Such exchanges will not only help displaced communities recover from the current crisis but also create long-term solutions that help prepare for future shocks.