The most common type of armed conflict worldwide at the moment is intra-state warfare – the kind that has been rocking Ethiopia for years. The violent clashes are a terror for innocent civilians, a threat to public infrastructure and private business, and a disaster for the economy. The stench of conflict lingers long after the final bullets are fired, repelling the possibility of rebuilding through investment. Still, it is possible to encourage capital to flow into war-torn places with the right mix of government support, the restitution of the rule of law, as well as collaboration with civil societies and local organizations. In Ethiopia, too often, instability is accompanied by finger-pointing at the private sector, accusing it of collaborating with perpetrators or insufficient support for the administration. In times of conflict, private businesses are expected to raise funds for pro-government forces and not much else. It is high time to recognize the potential the private sector has in building and maintaining peace. EBR’s Lidya Tesfaye showcases an initiative that is attempting to do just that.
Tamiru (last name withheld upon request) used to earn a pretty decent living from a restaurant he owned in the sunny town of Shashamane. He recalls that his small business was thriving in the not-too-distant past, perhaps thinking back to a happier time when he had hopes of expanding the eatery.
The optimism was not to last, however, as news of growing unrest in the country cast a shadow of fear over his entrepreneurial dreams. Tamiru was on edge, but reassured himself that the trouble was far from home.
“Of course, I used to think that it was the end of the world,” Tamiru says. “The news we heard was very disturbing. But even then, it seemed so far from us that it was hard to believe it could affect my business. Even after witnessing the destruction elsewhere, I thought I’d be safe. Until the day I saw it all before my eyes.” Tamiru lost his business,property, and means of living in the span of a few hours as violent unrest barreled through Shashamane – one of several towns in the Oromia region that were subject to arson, looting and other crimes in mid-2020. The ordeal devastated Tamiru, who had no choice but to move to Addis Ababa empty handed in search of a safe place to recoup and perhaps start over. He says he was thankful that he made it out alive.
“I wonder if there was anything that I could have done earlier? If there was anything expected of me to be able to protect my property and my employees from it ? I still do not know,” he said.
Tamiru’s story is one of countless examples of entrepreneurs that have seen their work destroyed and their hopes crushed as a result of violent conflict. Peace, as Tamiru learned the hard way, is essential for business. This is hardly a revelation, but, in a country where peace has become such a rare commodity, it might be worth asking what business can do for peace.
In a study that examines the private sector’s potential in inclusive peacebuilding, Dr. Jolyon Ford, an associate professor at the Australian National University, claims that the role and interests of business actors in peacebuilding dialogue and processes have historically received insufficient attention. The study, however, notes that the trend is changing as policymakers begin to recognize the value of including private businesses in efforts to establish and maintain peace.
Any meaningful idea of “inclusivity” in peacebuilding, according to him, cannot possibly leave out business. Ford argues that in addition to their economic function, businesses, organizations, and financial institutions play significant roles in politics. They may be able to support or undermine broader initiatives to avert conflict and maintain peace.
Ford, and increasingly more experts with similar views, believe the private sector can do more than serve as a source of employment, tax revenues, and economic growth. They want to see private businesses get involved in fostering and rebuilding peace and repairing societal fabric in order to prevent violent conflict or to recover from it.
It is a vision shared by Initiative Africa, a civic society organization based in Addis Ababa. Its latest and largest project, dubbed “Business for Peace”, launched recently with the hope of unifying the private sector, chambers of commerce, government agencies, and NGOs in the quest for building a lasting peace.
The project is funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). It focuses on job creation, youth development, gender equality, and social enterprise management as the targets to be aimed at by the partnership between private business, government, and social organizations.
Dalaya Ashenafi, project manager at Initiative Africa, observes that the private sector’s conspicuous absence in peacebuilding efforts stems from the failure to treat business and peace as interlaced concepts rather than distinct and disconnected entities.
“The business community’s eyes were only on the business,” Dalaya told EBR. “Their attention was dedicated to making a profit, paying taxes, and following day-to-day activities. But peace is the concern of all.”
He disclosed the project was launched prior to the spark of the deadly, expensive, and destructive war in the north in November 2020. Dalaya says the scale and intensity of the armed conflict pushed the project to evolve.
“We initiated the project with the idea of shaping the business community into an agent of peace and finding a way to make it part of their usual work,” said Dalaya.
Kebour Ghenna, executive director of Initiative Africa, aspires to see the private sector play a more efficient role than traditional actors in peacebuilding, which he says have often been less than effective. Kebour points to the roles played by civil societies before, during and after the national elections held last year.
“In many communities, studies were underway and discussions were held,” Kibur told EBR. “Those activities did not directly use the word peace or peacebuilding in their names butut they were all about peace.”
In his study, Dr. Ford advises policymakers and practitioners to potentially improve their peacebuilding and development goals by being more receptive to working with corporate actors. “We are working hard and we have a lot of ideas but we haven’t reached as far as we had hoped. [The project] requires more dialogue with stakeholders,” said Dalaya.
He disclosed that project runners are looking to pinpoint how exactly the business community wants to participate in peacebuilding and what they can put on the table in terms of a collaborative effort aimed at lasting stability.
A key condition to consider is the need to foster a healthy and open relationship between society and the private sector. This requires the former to provide a sense of security, allowing businesses to move freely and operate without concerns over safety. It is a job best suited, perhaps, to the government and civic organizations, although the businesses themselves can help by extending gestures of goodwill and showing a commitment to serving the communities that reside in the areas where they operate. This can be in the form of job creation, social support initiatives, or rehabilitation projects. This is by no means a new idea. It is a concept often referred to as “social corporate responsibility” and has been growing in acceptance in Ethiopia in the recent past. Placing a focus on making such initiatives as effective and far-reaching as possible is crucial, while actively encouraging peacebuilding efforts as a valid form of social corporate responsibility can go a long way in carving a meaningful role for the private sector in ensuring stability.
One of the project’s tasks is building the business community’s capacity to ask the necessary questions in order to set out on peace-related initiatives. Peacebuilding has its own systems, languages, and nuances. Businesses need to have a solid grasp of these ideas before defining their role and method of participation in peacebuilding efforts, according to Dalaya.
With the Business for Peace Fellowship program, the project has included training sessions for the business community. Training is provided in collaboration with organizations involved in peacebuilding, such as the
Institute for Security Studies, Institute for Peace and Security Studies, and other organizations from abroad.
The project also carries out studies primarily to investigate the effects of unrest and instability on business, and how affected businesses managed to bounce back. Project managers plan to use the findings to tailor future training programs.
Initiative Africa looks to publish and distribute a “Business Peace Index’’ down the line, providing information on security conditions in towns and cities across the country. Kebour and his team are also interested in participating in the national political dialogue, hoping to forge a space for the business community as a stakeholder in the talks.
“We are planning to help the business community in the process of making the private sector the agenda for the national dialogue,” Dalaya told EBR.
The project has already initiated discussions with the National Dialogue Commission. They are also preparing the National Dialogue Resource Center, an e-center that provides accurate information about the national dialogue and all issues related to it. There are other undertakings at Business for Peace, such as work to unite and strengthen chambers of commerce as an instrument for empowering the private sector, which are seeing results.
In short, the project wants to see the day that entrepreneurs like Tamiru no longer need to live in fear and are free to conduct business in peace with the communities they serve. EBR
EBR 11th Year • Dec 2022 • No. 113