According to the ancient proverb, handing out fish only feeds people for a day. Teaching people to fish will feed them for a lifetime. In war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Rwanda, it can be hard enough to find a fish, let alone a fishing instructor. Enter the Business Council for Peace.
Bpeace, a New York–based nonprofit, helps women build businesses in regions ravaged by war. They believe in a simple, innovative equation:
Women + Business = Peace.
Bpeace was founded by a small group of American businesswomen who attended the 2002 Global Peace Initiative of Women. Together these women established a network of more than 200 Western business professionals who volunteer their time, talent, and accumulated wisdom with budding entrepreneurs in conflict zones. Part aid organization, part business school, Bpeace is anything but a charity.
"I never think of Bpeace as a charity," said Bpeace board chair Toni Maloney, herself a successful marketing strategist. "We are a movement—an energy force—that matches people a million miles away from each other in terms of geography and culture but bound by the belief that more jobs will mean less violence."
In a recent email conversation with Policy Innovations, Maloney explained the logic behind the Bpeace approach: "Jobs help create peace by bringing income into the family and providing hope for a better future. And when entire communities have hope, and have something to lose, peace has a chance of becoming a reality, not just a dream."
A unique strategy called the Fast Runner Program is the hallmark of Bpeace's mission to identify and develop entrepreneurial talent. Fast Runners are "women who demonstrate high potential by already operating businesses (against all odds and sometimes cultural norms), being literate in their own language and demonstrating a real commitment to creating jobs for others in their country." Bpeace believes that these women are best placed to create jobs in their societies.
"Women make up more than half of the world's population, and in war-torn countries, they can actually be in the majority, left holding the sorrow of husbands and sons killed," said Maloney.
The fledgling businesswomen in the Fast Runners Program are provided with mentoring, training, and networking opportunities, most of which is done via email and telephone. Occasionally, however, mentors and entrepreneurs meet face to face. In 2005, Bpeace volunteers traveled to Afghanistan to work with Fast Runners on building a six-month action plan to address business problems and opportunities.
That same year, Afghan women from the apparel trade flew to New York for an intensive three-week training session. The entrepreneurs apprenticed with top designers and retailers, and attended specially tailored classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology. 11 of the women recently banded together to open a cooperative shop in Kabul. (You can follow Bpeace's Afghanistan projects at their Afghanistan blog.)
"We run Bpeace like a business, not a nonprofit. So we are very focused on achieving impact, and quantifying return on investment. This is tough because we are operating in a new social entrepreneurial space in conflict regions," said Maloney.
In Rwanda, Bpeace is supporting sixteen knitting cooperatives in an effort to develop knitwear products for export. In addition, twenty Fast Runners are participating in the mentoring program. Included among them are women running a wide array of businesses—a beauty salon, an amusement park, a flower center, a bakery, a commercial cleaner, and a party supply rental company. (You can follow the progress at their Rwanda blog.)
Bpeace's approach differs from many nonprofits and NGOs in that it focuses on expanding opportunity for the entrepreneurial class, rather than directly aiding the poor. This strategy reflects Bpeace's desire to reform the economic and political systems in the countries where they operate, not to replace them.
"We believe we are creating a new kind of capitalism," says Maloney. Her hope is that the training Bpeace provides will increase the visibility of the entrepreneurs themselves and allow them a greater political voice. In Afghanistan, the strategy is working. One of Bpeace's Fast Runners ran for and won a seat on the local Provisional Council. Three of the Rwandan Fast Runners have been featured in the local press as examples of successful businesspeople.
With Bpeace's future looking bright, Toni Maloney has but one regret.
"I wish I had made more money while I was operating my marketing consultancy. Then I could give away more of it now."