- Monday, 18 May 2020 12:43
What does Covid-19 look like in a country with no stable government? Until April, Covid-19 was something Yemenis citizens only read about in the news. Other major challenges were already part of their daily life. War and hunger have been their reality since September 2014.
The Former Minister of Information and former Chief Editor of Yemen Times, Dr. Nadia al-Sakkaf has hope for the private sector to rebuild the country and bring a future to the many young Yemenis entrepreneurs. The 2013 Business for Peace Honouree gave us insight as to the current situation, the growth of the business sector, and what anyone — everyone — can do in order to positively change the future of Yemen.
Nadia al-Sakkaf calling in via Zoom
What is the COVID-19 situation in Yemen?
We knew inevitably that the virus would come, but there is no state authority, so who is going to prepare us? It is left to civil society and the private sector. More than 24 million people — 80% of the population — is in need of humanitarian assistance. There is a lack of infrastructure, sanitation, and access to clean water, making the population vulnerable. There are other diseases which are being spread as well. Until April, Covid-19 was unreal. What was real to them was war and hunger.
We started to teach about social distancing and hand washing. Some of the reactions we received were so sad. “You’re telling me to wash my hands with soap and water. I don’t have access to soap or clean water.” For many young men on the frontline, they would rather die from a bullet than to the suffocation felt from Covid-19. The reality is that the choice is still death. There is a disconnect and a denial of the extent of this.
Can you tell us about the projects you’re working on in response to the pandemic?
I’m a part of several small projects. One is the Women’s Solidarity Network, which partners with Food for Humanity. This organisation is on the ground helping communities get access to clean water.
Then there is also the global advocacy element. We’re trying to amplify women Yemenis voices through op-eds in mainstream media to try and bring a different perspective. I am disappointed in mainstream media. International newspapers are not accepting these pieces because they don’t write about war or famine.
At Business for Peace, we focus on the role of businesses in building up societies. What role do you see for the private sector in helping Yemen through this crisis?
Yemeni business people are the ones providing protective and testing equipment. Their sense of social responsibility is big. Tech-based entrepreneurs held a hackathon in April. There were three ideas that passed onto the next stage: a medical consultation app, low-cost, fast-paced mask production, and recycling plastic for PPE with 3D printing. These great ideas need more support; there’s so much potential.
Yemen is a large country, but it is very fragmented. The de facto authority is the private sector. They’re the ones that will bring the country back, and it is important to acknowledge them as an important stakeholder. They are being ignored but ignoring the private sector in national policy does not make sense. They are involved in the local levels, involved in sanitation, clean water, and renewable energy. The private sector is holding the community together and giving people hope.
The economy will motivate people. Yemenis are getting paid to be involved in the frontline. If they have a proper job, if they have a system around them that is somewhat prosperous, they will think twice before they join any armed conflict. The solution is economic, not political.
Much of your career has been about women’s empowerment. What sort of unique role do women play in navigating this crisis?
Globally, women make up 75% of healthcare workers. Equal pay, promotions, and even just recognition would help. Women are working hard on the frontlines and have been able to mediate more than the official means. Yemeni women deserve recognition for what they do. They are powerful. They are superheroes, despite disadvantages and lack of resources and even the cultural discrimination against them. It’s not right.
Women-led organisations are doing much better than male-led organisations. They are more effective and cut through the nonsense and get things done. They are the ones who are the peace builders.
I cannot express enough how important it is to consider women as a main stakeholder when it comes to discussions. For sustainable and fair peace, women need to be at the table and involved in partnerships.
Finally, many people are talking about the chance to build a new normal. What would you prioritise?
Talk to the real actors on the ground and recognise them, in Yemen and countries in similar conditions. Facilitate the engagement of Yemeni entrepreneurs. We need to think about the economy post-Covid. It doesn’t have to be expensive. You could easily start a project for $1000 and help a community of 200. Just the planting of the seed will quickly spread to others. They will be jealous and will want to replicate the success. We need to motivate and network the right people.
Want to help?
Support the initiatives! A like, retweet, comment, or signing a pledge helps gain global attention. You can support organisations like Food for Humanity or sign the petition for a ceasefire. The Hackathon ideas need expertise, funding, and expanded networks.
Free speech allows room for discussion and perspective. Make sure women’s voices are heard globally in the Yemeni peace process.
Support from abroad “brings life back to us,” as Nadia said.
This interview is a part of a series highlighting #businessworthy efforts in response to covid-19 and has been edited for length and format. Watch the full interview here: https://www.facebook.com/businessworthy/videos/2825640327548691/
Alison of Business for Peace talks with Dr. Nadia al-Sakkaf
- Thursday, 30 April 2020 14:32
Sarah’s Bag is a Lebanese fashion house and social enterprise that empowers women, employing over 200 prisoners, ex-prisoners and underprivileged women. Their artisan handbags have been spotted on the arms of Beyoncé and Amal Clooney, but now the company is navigating a dual crisis.
In many parts of the world, the economic and political situation was already precarious before the pandemic outbreak. Producing and selling products in Lebanon has not been easy since the revolution began several months ago. This means that the current pandemic forced 2016 Business for Peace Honouree Sarah Beydoun to take on the complexities of a crisis on top of a crisis. We talked with the fashion designer and entrepreneur about how her company, Sarah’s Bag, is responding.
CEO Sarah Beydoun and a few of the artisans of Sarah’s Bag
What’s the situation in Lebanon?
For us, the pandemic has been able to inflict maximum damage on a country already going through one of the worst crises of its history. By the time we started quarantine in March, Lebanon was already months into the worst financial crisis the country has seen since the Civil War ended in 1991.
As a social enterprise, the human element of our work is at the heart of what we do and everything that we create. We are involved in local initiatives to support the creative sector in Lebanon, because this feels like an existential crisis for all of us here. We don’t know where the country is heading.
Sarah’s Bag has been in crisis mode for the past five months. We have been in business for 20 years. We have already weathered war and political and economic crises, but what we are experiencing now is unprecedented. I am in a crisis within a crisis.
How has the pandemic affected your business? How have you as a leader responded?
I had to be honest with my team and tell them that things are tough and are going to be tough for a while. We had to make difficult decisions as a team and a company.
During the past five months, hundreds of businesses in Lebanon have gone bankrupt, or cut hours, salaries and jobs. Unlike others, I wanted to avoid lay-offs as much as I could. Now, we are operating at 10% of our capacity, so some of the team and I are on half salaries. However, for employees who are in the lower wage bracket, the salary cuts were less.
We worked on a strategy to compensate for the local loss in sales by focusing on our online boutique in addition to focusing on the international market. The type of products people are buying are essentials and things for the home. We therefore plan to work on big pieces for home décor rather than for handbags. This way, I can keep all these artisans employed.
Photo courtesy Sarah’s Bag
What would you say to fellow business leaders about how to act during these times?
Consumers are more aware than ever of how brands treat their workers. Companies have to be careful not to be tone deaf during a crisis. People will be watching to see how these companies will react, and business as usual will no longer work. I do not think people will go back to this. This is the right time for businesses to think of the kind of impact they can have, and I hope this means an increase in social enterprises.
Businesses have to find ways to protect their workers, especially in crisis. This means we have to focus on saving jobs as much as possible. This is more important than shareholder profits; these are the people behind the successes of the company. It would be incredibly sad and disheartening if there isn’t any kind of reevaluation of business values after this global disaster.
I started from scratch. When you start from scratch, you can always do it again. A lot of businesses also are going to start listening to social demands, and other businesses are going to emerge as a response to social needs.
Many people worry that this crisis will have a disproportionate impact on underprivileged groups. At the same time, there might be an opportunity to create a ‘new normal.’ How do you hope the world changes in the aftermath of this crisis?
We have to be in tune with what is happening around us. The crisis will impact a lot of underprivileged people. Everywhere in the world, this is going to impact those who have the least. There will be an opportunity to create a new normal. I hope people will emerge from this crisis and extract from it a new way of acting and living.
A lot of nice things come out of a crisis. This pandemic has brought the world closer and people are looking for instances of hope, kindness, solidarity and humanity. These should also be business values and consumers will be watching to see how companies stepped up and had a positive impact during a crisis and these companies will be rewarded for it with loyalty after this difficult time is over.
This interview is a part of a series highlighting #businessworthy efforts in response to Covid19. For more on Sarah Beydoun, visit https://sarahsbag.com/our-story/
Sarah’s Bag provides opportunities to Lebanese women who would otherwise not have these opportunities. Photo courtesy Sarah’s Bag