For several years, I’ve reported on entrepreneurs whose bottom line is bolstering well-being for their communities. Their ventures and initiatives seek to systematically change society toward gender equality, food security, renewable energy, wildlife and land protection, healthcare, and clean water—among other endeavors. As a correspondent for the Unreasonable Institute, I traveled throughout East Africa and Latin America, connecting the dots between business practices, the daily lives of those impacted, and the supportive organizations—and obstacles—unique to their ecosystems. Be it an Afro-Mestizo population cradled in a Pacific Coast natural reserve in Oaxaca, Mexico—fecund with natural resources, but no working currency—who must increase access to education, or a population of farmers across rural Kenya who need to adapt with new technologies to feed millions in the wake of climate change. For them, entrepreneurship is vital.
This morning, I’m boarding a flight to visit a Kabul-based incubator program run by Shetab, meaning “accelerator” in Persian/Dari, in partnership with the Unreasonable Labs. Founders Ajmal Paiman and Azadeh Tajdar have selected six startups to support their development goals in Kabul with a robust international network of mentors and investors.
Steven Koltai, author of Peace Through Entrepreneurship: Investing in a Startup Culture for Security and Development, calls for the urgent elevation of entrepreneurship in the service of foreign policy. Under former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, he created the Global Entrepreneurship Program. For two years he acted as senior advisor and oversaw the launch of pilots across the Middle East. This week, he argued this premise to an audience hosted by New America: Joblessness is a root cause of the global unrest threatening international security. Fostering entrepreneurship is the remedy.
“There’s a straight line connection between unemployment and political instability and unrest,” he said, adding that he knows what it’s like when things go badly wrong.
His parents were children of the Holocaust before relocating to Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. When Soviet tanks stalked the streets of Budapest in 1956, his parents grabbed only essentials, tucked him into a bag with his teddy bear and fled for their lives. A few weeks later, they arrived in the United States.
“My family’s background shaped the course of my life, and particularly, inspired a vital belief that I hold today: war is to be avoided at all costs, and the key driver of war is not actually religious or political difference; it is economics,” he writes in the introduction to Peace Through Entrepreneurship.
In Kabul, the capital city of 3.6 million people, this burgeoning entrepreneurial community is planning an approach for stability and economic growth against a backdrop of a worsening humanitarian situation. The number of internally displaced people increased almost 80 percent in 2015, and more than 200,000 Afghans fled the turmoil for Europe, according to the United Nations. Similar trends have continued in 2016. According to Amnesty International, the United States has asked for $393 million in humanitarian funding for Afghanistan in 2016. This number reflects an overall decline in international aid in the region.
But this is the crux of the story—a glaring gap Koltai points to—where local entrepreneurs become key players. How does the international community support their dedicated efforts?
There are a litany of successful case studies examining cross-organization collaborations. The July/August edition of Foreign Affairs touches on this, with an article entitled The Innovative Finance Revolution: Private Capital for the Public Good by Georgia Levenson Keohand and Saadia Madsbjerg. “In recent years,” they write, “a new model has emerged, as collaborations among the private sector, nonprofit organizations, and governments have resulted in innovate new approaches to a variety of global challenges, including public health, disaster response, and poverty reduction.”
Citing examples with analysis of impactful collaborations in America and abroad, the authors recommend in their conclusion that, “in the United States, Congress should pass legislation—such as the Social Impact Partnership Act, which was proposed in 2015 with bipartisan support—that would direct federal funding to public-private innovative financial initiatives at the state and local levels.”
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani expressed a similar view in his 2005 TEDGlobal talk, How to Rebuild a Broken State. He urged the importance of global engagement in the region, but stressed, “instead of sending 100 billion in aid, send the money to the most innovative companies.”
Koltai touches upon an ethos of shared humanity in the service of international security. He sees entrepreneurs as a global population poised to make ties for the greater good, despite varying religious and political beliefs. As building bridges between cultures, as peacekeepers.
Cayte Bosler is a journalist and social innovation researcher based in New York City.