Italy, Bangladesh, Palestine: a triangulation that gave birth to the first Yunus Social Business Center in the Middle East. The center, which found a home at the University of Bethlehem, was launched in December 2018 and aims to act as an incubator and accelerator of startups in the context of social business. Simply put, the advanced version of cooperation. The operators of the Vis (International Voluntary Service for Development), with the Yunus Center of the Università di Firenze together with professor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Muhammad Yunus have come together to make the activation of this project possible. All within one of the most difficult socio-political contexts on the planet: An Israeli occupied Palestine where unemployment, in 2017, touched 27.7% and gender differences prevent women from fully accessing the world of work (only 19% are employed against 71% of men).
But what is this social business? “Basically it is a company that was born with the aim of responding to a need or a social or environmental problem, a mission to which all the profits that are generated by its work are destined ", explains Enrico Testi, manager of the Yunus Center in Florence. At the base of this model there is the message and the best practices put in place by professor Yunus, a reference figure at a global level due to his campaign to fight poverty through microcredit, which has made it possible to valorize activities generating a profit through small loans that do not require guarantors.
"In general – Testi continues – the premise of social business is that economic activity, businesses can also be used in favor of society going against the traditional approach of business schools where the goal is always to maximize profits ". Theories and approaches that brought Florence and Bethlehem together: "Everything was born through technical consultancy that the Yunus Center provides both in Italy and abroad. In Palestine we were following projects which allowed us to come into contact with the Vis. We have created a network and thanks to the approval of Professor Yunus and the availability of the University of Bethlehem, we have managed to develop it and give the first push to this initiative ", Testi concludes, who is also part of the scientific committee that directs and supervises the work of the center.
First of all, we want to make it clear that the starting point for solving community problems is sustainable entrepreneurship with an eye on the weaker sections of the population
On a more practical level, it is up to the VIS operators to turn the various projects into reality. Coordinating them is Luigi Bisceglia, a life spent in the world of cooperation which, after a long time wandering, brought him to Palestine: "I got here in 2011 to coordinate a master's degree in development cooperation in collaboration with the University of Pavia. This led me to deepen my relationship with the private sector. Over time, in fact, I realized two things: the first is that if we really want to promote human rights we must find ways to satisfy needs; the second is that the private sector has great potential in developing local economic projects ". Along this line, therefore, is the involvement in the creation of the Yunus Center.
But what are the projects and activities supported? "What we are focusing on is preparing the ground so that we can incubate startups with social impact. To do this, we realized that we need an action of awareness towards young people, stakeholders and institutions regarding the social business. In short, we first of all want to make it clear that the starting point for solving community problems is sustainable entrepreneurship with an eye on the weakest sections of the population. Added to this is an activity at the lawmaking level, so that the Palestinian National Authority will recognize and facilitates this type of business. Finally, we would like to train the management necessary to stimulate the future participants in the call to action aimed at startups ". From here, within a year, the goal is to launch real social business competitions capable of attracting the best local actors, perhaps already active in the area (and for which a real mapping process is underway).
After all, the Palestinian population has shown over the last 70 years to be extremely resilient, an essential characteristic for facing and overcoming the material difficulties that, in other places, would challenge any entrepreneur. However, despite this, adequate responses to youth unemployment are still lacking, as is the lack of skilled labor in the construction, industry and renewable energy sectors. Shortcomings that are due, in part, also to a separation between school activities and the needs of the socio-economic fabric and to the material difficulty of getting what is needed in this part of the world: “Remittances and humanitarian aids drug the Palestinian economy – says Bisceglia – for this we must provide an alternative, especially to vulnerable categories, both young and old. Speaking of women, for example, we realized that there are women who, only at 40-45 years old, after marrying young and caring for their children, are finally ready to enter the world of work.” A chance that it’s never to late to take.