Three ways social entrepreneurs work in conflict regions

Social entrepreneurs in conflict regions react to the situation by adapting to, addressing and altering conflict, according to research among key actors within the still small social enterprise scene in Afghanistan. And, rather than letting the highly challenging situation control them, they're managing to take control of the conflict – and are conducting what researchers Alina Spanuth and Ali Aslan Gümüsay describe as “extra-ordinary” social venturing.

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“In conflict regions, there are many problems and challenges for citizens in every aspect of life such as access to education, health, legal, economic, social, and cultural. Social entrepreneurship can play the key role in such situations, by identifying the biggest problems and finding solutions for them. I believe that social entrepreneurship helps the development and improvement of society, cities, and countries during conflict situations. So, in the end, and in the bigger picture, it will help to develop the country by bringing ease to the life of people, bringing positive change, creating innovation and solving problems” – founder of Afghan Girls in ICT

For social entrepreneurs, societal challenges are drivers of opportunity. Such challenges are amplified in situations of violent conflict, which threatens people’s very lives. So how does social entrepreneurship affect regions dominated by conflict, war, and violence?

Our recent study unpacks social entrepreneurship practices in one of the most conflict-stricken countries, Afghanistan, where it has led to innovative approaches to dealing with conflict. We find that social entrepreneurs build businesses that help to adapt to conflict, address conflict, and alter conflict. This triad of adapting, addressing, and altering plays a central role in the reaction of social entrepreneurs to conflict. Conflict and war foster what can be called “necessity social entrepreneurship” to react to threatening conditions and to enable local citizens to participate in social and economic life despite existing challenges. Social entrepreneurship opens up a space for new ideas and creates opportunities to deal with conflict and war in diverse and innovative ways. Furthermore, we find that digital technologies play an important role in overcoming physical challenges and enabling participation in social and economic life during conflict and war.

Social entrepreneurship opens up a space for new ideas and creates opportunities to deal with conflict in innovative ways

Drawing on our qualitative study, we focus on social entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, where conflict and war have been present for over 40 years now – and where social entrepreneurship is still a new concept. In addition to compiling documentary data such as company reports and social media posts from social enterprises, we interviewed six social entrepreneurs from the capital Kabul between April 2020 and August 2020. Aged from their late 20s to early 30s, male and female, they had all founded their enterprises within the last five years. Our interviewees are key actors within the still small social enterprise network in Afghanistan, which is why they have comprehensive knowledge of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem there, and were able to offer in-depth insights into this field. The enterprises included in this study are all tackling urgent problems in education, finance and business acceleration, health or security.


Social entrepreneurs and the 3 As in conflict situations

We found that social entrepreneurs in conflict regions react to the conflict situation in three ways: they adapt, address and alter, which we call the three As.

Adapting to conflict

First, social entrepreneurs adapt to conflict by creating innovative solutions to improve the lives of people in dire situations. Conflict and war limit people’s ability to participate in many aspects of life, like going to school or work. For social entrepreneurs it also means having limited ability to communicate with beneficiaries, deliver their services and products, and expand their operations.

Nevertheless, social entrepreneurs use creative ways to adapt to these challenges. For instance, the social enterprise SOLA developed an Afghan-led private boarding school so that girls could learn while mitigating the risks of travelling to and from school each day in the midst of a dangerous conflict. In addition, using technology offered SOLA the possibility to provide education through online classes, which allowed some students to learn from home. Other entrepreneurs use technology so that they can work from home and communicate with beneficiaries by digital means – this is useful, because going out to Taliban-controlled provinces is too dangerous. By adapting to conflict, social entrepreneurs create workarounds that enable them and their beneficiaries to participate in social and economic spheres while conflict is ongoing.

Social entrepreneurs create workarounds that enable them and their beneficiaries to participate in social and economic spheres while conflict is ongoing

Addressing conflict

Second, social entrepreneurs address conflict by creating social innovations that increase security. The social enterprise Ehtesab is a platform that can be used by local communities to report an issue, whether it is a crime, corruption or cronyism, or by people who want to submit issues or complaints to local municipalities. This data can in turn be used to increase security within districts and cities via the tracking of crimes, bombings or neglected issues.

By addressing the conflict, social entrepreneurs have found a way to make sense of it and to use data to organise and increase predictability, which ultimately also makes it easier to adapt to conflict.



Altering conflict

Third, social entrepreneurs alter conflict by (trans-)forming the underlying institutional infrastructures: by forming communities, building trust and creating jobs. An institutional infrastructure of this kind for peaceful, collaborative engagement reduces the amount of people who amplify conflict by, for instance, joining terrorist groups.

Tasees and BrightPoint offer business acceleration and mentoring programmes, which help citizens to gain knowledge of business creation and management. Tamveel is the first impact investing platform in Afghanistan, investing in local companies with a sustainable impact. All three social enterprises have helped many citizens to set up their own business and become financially independent. Additionally, the social enterprise AWSWO has created a programme that supports students to pursue higher education and facilitates job placements for university graduates. The model is based on partnerships that AWSWO builds with the Ministry of Education and Universities, which result in discounts for students to receive affordable education. After realising that a big part of the tuition fees is based on marketing costs of local universities, which they spend with the goal to attract new students, AWSWO signed contracts with the universities to cut those costs from students and in exchange AWSWO is taking care of the placement of students in the universities as a service for them. AWSWO is also working together with the Labour Market Ministry to provide support for job placements after graduation. Their work directly affects education and unemployment, leading to a better social and economic situation in Afghanistan.


The role of digital during conflict

As Scheidgen and colleagues (2021) note, crises like the Covid-19 pandemic demand a change in the way entrepreneurs operate and identify opportunities. Not unlike the Covid-19 pandemic, violent conflict forces people to stay at home and remain physically distant.

Digital technologies therefore play an important role. They enable people to communicate and organise work and life without being exposed to physical danger outside. This leads to a reduction in casualties and at the same time enables many excluded citizens to participate in social and working life. Especially for women, who in conflict situations are often even more at risk outside, digital technologies enable social and economic inclusion by connecting them to the world from home. Moreover, the social and economic inclusion of women through digital technologies can ultimately lead to a change in cultural perceptions of their role and have a lasting impact on women’s inclusion in society, even after the conflict is over.

Technology and the internet enable social entrepreneurs to engage in entrepreneurial activities more easily and reduce their exposure to threats

Social entrepreneurs use digital technologies to spread their positive impact across regions. Our study in Afghanistan has shown that technology plays a big role, even in regions where internet connectivity is rather low – with only 20% overall penetration within the country according to Datareportal – and frequent electric power cuts. Technology and the internet enable social entrepreneurs to engage in entrepreneurial activities more easily and reduce their exposure to threats. For instance, online anonymity gives local people a voice, which they otherwise might not dare to raise under a terrorist threat or authoritarian regime. Digitalisation can accelerate the transformational character of social entrepreneurship, leading to faster social change.


“Extra-ordinary” social venturing

Social entrepreneurship can play a key role in conflict situations by identifying problems and finding solutions. There are many examples of innovative, resilient social enterprises in conflict regions that tackle problems and transform the society in which they operate. They are, as they report themselves, used to conflict, and many have never experienced life without conflict, which makes it an “ordinary” situation for them – but their social ventures are really “extra-ordinary.” Our interviews suggest they are quite resilient: they will not let the situation of conflict control them; rather, they are managing to gain control over the conflict by finding ways to adapt to, address, and alter conflict.

  • Alina Spanuth is a graduate student at the University of Hamburg and prospective doctoral candidate; Ali Aslan Gümüsay is head of the Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Society Research Group at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society. Header image: Kabul, by Mohammad Rahmani on Unsplash

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