How to empower then shift power
For international NGOs to truly have sustainable impact, they must transfer responsibility, funding and ultimately ownership to local organisations. For many this is a daunting prospect because it means our services are no longer needed. But not only is it the right thing to do, it is the only way to achieve positive, lasting development of fragile and conflict-affected regions. “With technology and internet connection, there are no limits to building something.”
Better jobs for our partners and people
SPARK has long seen the answer to instability as creating more and better jobs – a stable economy can contribute to a stable society. One of the tools we use to achieve this goal is Business Support Centres.
In areas with potential for economic growth, we work with local organisations to set up business centres that support startups and grow SMEs. Local organisations understand the unique hurdles to doing business in their country so can provide tailored support for the context-specific challenges that entrepreneurs face.
Serbia: Bridging skills gaps
Twelve years ago, Serbia had only recently become an independent country again for the first time in 88 years. The Yugoslav wars that plagued the region throughout the 1990s had caused a refugee crisis, hyperinflation and a huge economic downturn. People were in urgent need of jobs to rebuild their lives and communities.
However, the post-communist society was struggling with the ingrained prejudice towards privately-owned businesses. Entrepreneurship was not considered a viable career path for young Serbians.The established Business Support Centre began by offering training to young people. “We had a lot of university students who wanted to learn practical skills, like how to write a business plan”, says current director, Marija Stojadinovic. “They’d studied the theory at university but they lacked practical skills”.
Providing useful training that boosted young people’s CVs and made them more employable led the business centre to develop a strong reputation in the region, and soon thousands of young people had passed through its doors. “Nowadays, I see many people who say these courses changed their lives”, said Stojadinovic.
Describing one young man who took various business skills courses, she said: “He went on to start a car insurance business. Now we use his car services and he tells me that the training showed him how important life-long learning is. He still asks to attend our training!”
SPARK provided capacity building to the local management team so that within three years the business centre in Kragujevac was operating independently. Stojadinovic described one of the most important skills that SPARK taught was proposal writing for western European donors. With these skills the centre went on to write and win funding from the EU and other donors by themselves.
Gaza: Borders and blockades
Situated on the banks of the Mediterranean between Asia, Africa and Europe, Gazans have been historically entrepreneurial, often trading with their neighbours. Now however, with the Israeli blockade restricting mobility of goods, services and people, youth in the Gaza Strip have few options.
Without physical access to the rest of the world, many industries, such as import/export are irrelevant in the Gazan market. Therefore, in 2011 when Mohammed Skaik and SPARK jointly resurrected the Islamic University of Gaza’s Business and Technology Incubator, the focus was on tech businesses that could transcend the restrictions on movement.
Film produced by Magic Lens about the Business Incubation Centre, Gaza
While the lack of reliable electricity disrupts daily life for the 1.8 million inhabitants, with homes and offices without power for up to six hours a day, Gaza’s entrepreneurs find a way to make it work.
SPARK supported Skaik to start with business competitions, which initially received only around 60 applicants. Now, having become independent of SPARK in 2016, the incubator regularly receives over 2,000.
One of the first winners of the business plan competitions was Magic Lens, a successful media production company, which now has clients throughout the Gulf and the Middle East. “Growing up in one of the hardest regions of the world, you learn how to wisely deal with the smallest opportunities you can get”, explained Ahmed Lafi, one of the three founders.
The company employs freelancers to shoot footage, which is edited from their office in the Gaza Strip. “With technology and internet connection, there are no limits to building something”, said Ahmed.
Outgrowing the need for direct support, the incubator and SPARK went on to share the knowledge and experience gained throughout Palestine. “When we first started there was only one other incubator, now I believe there are around seven”, said Skaik.
Yemen: Inhospitable business environments
When the EU Ambassador to Yemen and the Ambassadors of France and the Netherlands, recently visited Sana’a to promote de-escalation efforts, they also made time to meet with Executive Director of the Business Support Centre Yemen, Ghadeer Al-Maqhafi.
At the end of 2013, when Yemen was on the brink of civil war, SPARK launched the Business Support Centre Yemen in the capital, Sana’a, alongside UNDP and the Yemeni Business Club. Six years on, despite the catastrophic humanitarian situation in Yemen, the achievements of the business centre are unmatched.
Al-Maqhafi (who is also Acting Executive Director of the Yemeni Business Club) explained that with the government often not paying salaries, many people have been forced into entrepreneurship out of necessity. “Entrepreneurship in Yemen is one of the most powerful tools we have for reconstruction. At the end of the day, it’s much better to give me work than to give me a food basket”, said Al-Maqhafi.
Despite SPARK being forced to suspend all activities in Yemen in 2016 due to the conflict, our local partner organisation, the Yemeni Business Club, took over full operations of the business centre. To date, the centre has supported almost 1,500 entrepreneurs with business training, coaching and startup competitions. Winners often receive free office space for up to 6 months.
One entrepreneur, Ahlam Kamal Al-Dubai, is breaking down traditional gender barriers by becoming one of Yemen’s only female automobile business owners. Her company, Car Care Services, which now employs 25 people, buys and sells cars and will soon provide car loans to women.
“The environment is not ready for startups”, explained Al-Maqhafi. “Not in terms of laws, not in terms of loans. For example, microfinance loans charge up to 12% interest rates!” SPARK, from a distance, supported the business centre to improve the business environment for Yemen’s current and future entrepreneurs by successfully lobbying for a one window tax system, for example.
Rebuild and leave principle
Over the years, many of our local partners – from Serbia to Yemen – have outgrown us and our role as an international NGO has shifted. In the beginning we are a source of funding, as a business centre grows we provide knowledge and networks, finally SPARK is able to leave a fully operational and independent business centre to support their own community.
SPARK’s model of support for local partner organisations, whether it be within business centre programmes or any of our other education or employment programmes, shows that with great equality in development cooperation, NGOs can have a more sustainable impact in fragile and conflict-affected regions. Gone are the days that ever-changing Western policies and priorities should dictate the way that local people rebuild their own communities.