Poverty and inequality, rooted in an absence of economic opportunity, is a primary source of conflict throughout the world. In the Middle East and North Africa region, there are certainly other sources of conflict as well, but we should not forget that the Arab Spring uprisings began in large part as a culmination of mounting socio-economic frustration. Although the uprisings have subsided, the underlying drivers of discontent have not been addressed in the decade since. And they are a key reminder that disregarding the fundamental desire for economic opportunity carries real risk to stability and peace.

These kinds of conflicts sometimes erupt into the open as they did in the Arab Spring. In some cases they simmer under the surface with no outlet, whether violent or peaceful. What also simmers under the surface in every country, regardless of the degree of poverty and inequality, is entrepreneurial spirit and capability. It can be the means for creators and the workers they hire to rise out of their circumstances, and for them to supply some of the basic needs that others in their communities lack. If we imagine different possible futures for economically disadvantaged communities in MENA and elsewhere, one difference between conflict futures and peaceful, stable ones may be the degree to which entrepreneurial capability is afforded the conditions in which to thrive.

Leaders with foresight are ones who imagine alternative futures for their country, community, or business. Those trying to put that foresight to work for practical good look for how they can help create these alternative futures, through proactive investment and capacity building. So if we strive for more peaceful, stable realities for conflict-plagued and “conflict-ready” countries, we should be encouraging leaders to focus on engendering conditions for economic opportunity, equitably available, to bloom. Especially in environments where conflict may be simmering due to its absence, fostering entrepreneurial ecosystems could be a meaningful “left of the boom” intervention that can help create preferred futures.

Rearview mirror

If we look to the past, there is evidence of the role that cultivating the growth of startup businesses can have in stabilization, peacebuilding, and conflict resolution. The scholarship on entrepreneurs’ impact on improving conflict areas is growing. Peace in its most basic form — the absence of active violence — is naturally limited and fragile. When it is bolstered by the growth of new homegrown businesses, it can become stronger and more sustainable. When their emergence is proactively encouraged, and they are provided the kind of policy and investment support to sustain themselves and grow, it can be stronger still.

Entrepreneurship actually is a substantial form of enterprise in many conflict-affected areas. Often (intentionally, and understandably) it emerges to address specific community needs that conflict created. Looking southward from the MENA region, sub-Saharan Africa provides some salient examples. The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) faced extraordinary economic challenges after myriad issues exploded into violent conflict in 1998. This was especially true in the northeastern province of Ituri, where violence and instability persist today. After the worst of the conflict began to subside in 2002, entrepreneurship took on an important role in addressing the most basic needs in communities where local, governmental, and international assistance had dried up.

Kahongolo Kahinda is one of these Congolese entrepreneurs. She recognized she could help herself and others begin to recover from the war’s effects, and began a door-to-door sales venture offering grass she and her family cut from the forest to local animal farmers struggling to get feed for their livestock. Many other startup ventures like Kahongolo’s have emerged over the last 15 years and have played an important role in stabilizing the still-volatile situation in the DRC. This has been a largely “DIY” phenomenon, as the government’s weak capacity and corruption all but precluded meaningful state support for entrepreneurs. Government action was largely focused on signing peace agreements and stopping active violence, and efforts to promote startups never followed. Only much more recently has investment in startup ecosystems begun to flow into the DRC, through programs like Neema Congo and Wakisha, and the May 2022 announcement of the $300 million World Bank “TRANSFORME DRC” project.

If we look at neighboring Rwanda, post-conflict entrepreneurship has a very different look. Since the Rwandan Civil War and its horrific genocide, the country has recovered tremendously over the past nearly three decades. Economic growth has been impressive, although there are significant concerns about the country’s political trajectory. GDP rose from $752 million in 1994 to $9.5 billion in 2018 and Rwanda was assessed in 2020 to be the second best place to do business in Africa by the World Bank. Acknowledging that the contexts are not identical, why has post-conflict Rwanda economically thrived when post-conflict DRC continues to struggle with large-scale poverty and instability?

One difference is that after the conflict, Rwanda’s government took a future-focused approach to the role that economic development driven by entrepreneurship could play in stabilizing the country. Leaders purposefully promoted startups at all levels of society with an eye toward their peacebuilding potential. In 2000, following the genocide, President Paul Kagame created a development program, “Vision 2020,” whose goal is to “transform Rwanda from a low-income agriculture-based economy to a knowledge-based, service-oriented economy by 2020.” From its “Workforce Development Authority,” to international partnerships such as kLab, to government-funded startup ecosystems, Rwanda has continuously promoted a culture that equates entrepreneurship to patriotism and nation-building. While there is no one solution to the complex and unique challenges the country still faces, and the government’s authoritarianism and suppression of political dissent are deeply concerning, Rwanda’s lived experience shows that proactive support for entrepreneurship can make a difference in fostering sustainable peace.

Looking over the horizon

What might we extrapolate from these examples to situations in the MENA region where conflict has not already burst into the open, but could? An important part of the value in employing strategic foresight approaches in policy development is taking ideas that have had beneficial consequences in one context and thinking through scenarios in which they might be applied in a different one. If we know that promoting entrepreneurship can help meaningfully rebuild peace and stability after it has been shattered, could doing so help prevent conflict in the first place? What might a government with foresight do to create that future?

Alongside its painful active conflicts, the MENA region, like other parts of the world, also has what we might call potentially “conflict-ready” environments where we would do well to engage in some speculative futures thinking. In Rwanda, the civil war was rooted in intergroup rivalries, but environmental factors like land scarcity, food shortages, and deforestation created economic and social pressures that aggravated the discord. Across the world today, climate change is exacerbating already-existing tensions and risks being the spark that pushes conflicts waiting to happen into violence. This is certainly a risk in MENA. One potential example is in Morocco.

Home to 37 million people, most living in urban areas, Morocco’s economic and social challenges are being intensified by climate change. Severe drought, water scarcity, and sea level rise are alarming threats to the country and its people. While Rwanda’s intergroup tensions came from ethnic conflicts, Morocco’s divisions may increase between its urban and rural populations, and between both those populations and the government, as the climate change impacts increase and government policies allow those impacts to be felt unequally.

Many of the large-scale agriculture companies in the country predominantly grow water-intensive crops, like watermelon, avocadoes, and citrus, to export abroad or sell domestically. Intensive agriculture and arboriculture account for 85% of overall water consumption. As the sector generates 17% of Morocco’s GDP and employs 40% of the nation’s workforce (as of 2017), government water management and other policies support these agriculture companies, despite the fact that they worsen water shortages. Small-scale farmers in rural areas, where 70% of lower-income Moroccans live, compete on unequal terms and are marginalized in national development policies that determine the distribution of water and other natural resources. Management and structural issues plague the agricultural industry and disproportionately harm these rural populations.

Urban citizens feel the effects of water scarcity as well. Water has become so scarce that it is cut off for hours to days at a time in some cities. As far back as 2017, city residents took to the streets in “thirsty protests” against the government’s management of water resources in ways that favor big agriculture, and the lack of infrastructure to provide citizens with the water they need. Climate change will only further strain this high-stakes issue.

It’s easy to see how water scarcity creates instability in Morocco economically, socially, and, as climate change worsens, even existentially. Could the instability go from tensions to violent conflict? Not necessarily, of course, but it is one alternative future. In neighboring Algeria it did, when in 2000 and again in 2013 protests over water shortages erupted into major clashes. While water strain may not explicitly threaten violent conflict at this moment in Morocco, the migration, economic and social turmoil, and erosion of government legitimacy that it fuels has the potential to make that alternative future come about. The prospect demands that we consider ways to help ensure that path is not realized.

Getting out in front of it

If the Moroccan government wanted to prevent such a “boom” before it happened, one strategy might be to establish programs to promote and support entrepreneurism in a “conflict-ready” situation, like Rwanda did post-conflict. The kinds of policies and other steps that helped set that country up for success after its civil war could be used to help prevent violence from sparking in the first place. This could include a variety of actions. And the local populations who are directly and immediately affected by the country’s water scarcity and climate change challenges could also have some of the best ideas for technology and other innovations that may help to address them. Boosting the ability of its citizens to create and implement those innovations would be an investment by Morocco’s government — and by investors in Morocco, the region, and beyond — not only in social entrepreneurship, but also in the future stability and peace of the country.

What are some of the priority startup ecosystems Morocco’s government and others might foster in order to address its water scarcity and climate change problems and help forestall potential conflicts those problems could create? Investing in agritech, water resource management, and climate change adaptation businesses could be of particular value. As a recent OECD analysis notes, the agri-food sector in Morocco already is predominantly micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) and should be seen as “a strategic sector for economic inclusion in the country, notably for young people living in rural areas, and holding considerable potential for economic empowerment of women.”

The Moroccan government is well aware of these issues and has put sustainability and local value added at the core of its strategy for the agricultural sector in its new development model. Rabat is also adopting policies to improve the efficiency of agricultural water use and has recently introduced a comprehensive water management plan.

But there’s more that can be done. Waterpreneurs, a Swiss non-profit focused on the nexus of water, human rights, security, and peace, has done substantial work on impact investing in water resource management innovations that Morocco and other governments and finance sector leaders could leverage. Another opportunity area may be the reforestation sector. There are already reforestation ventures in Morocco’s economy, such as ReforestAction, which plant trees to combat desertification, improve energy output, and develop local economies. The government in Rabat and local governments throughout the country could take steps to increase their own as well as foreign direct investment in all of these sectors, to address urgent water scarcity problems and to speculatively invest in future peace and security.

Creating the future

Morocco, other countries in the MENA region, and many other places in the world face futures in which conflict is at greater and greater risk of emerging out of the effects of climate change. There is no single solution to forestalling these conflicts, but fostering opportunities for entrepreneurs can be a valuable element of a multidimensional strategy. Governments, development agencies, investors, and other leaders can look back and see examples where fostering social entrepreneurship has helped rebuild peace, including in places where the conflicts are rooted in the effects of climate change. If they do, they can also easily look forward to scenarios where doing so proactively is a vital element in creating a future in which peace does not need to be rebuilt.


Steven Kenney is the Director of the Strategic Foresight Initiative program at MEI. He is also the founder and principal of Foresight Vector LLC, a strategy consultancy.

Sophie Marro is a research assistant with the Strategic Foresight Initiative. She is also a student of International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict Resolution, and Arabic language, at George Washington University.

Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

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