Joint post by Marte Hellema, Youth Co:Lab and Marcela Werutsky, UNDP Fair Biz
Obtaining decent employment is a tough challenge for young people across Asia-Pacific. The prevalence of corruption has a significant impact on their opportunities. Ensuring business integrity is not just an ethical consideration for young social entrepreneurs in the region, it is a must if they want to see their business grow and prosper. But it is not an easy journey, as experienced by young people involved in our project on fair business.
Asia-Pacific is home to fifty-five per cent of the world’s young people. It is estimated that they account for half of the jobless in the region. The COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to impact this greatly.
Increasingly young people are deciding to counter this challenge by setting up their own business. Asia has one of the highest young start-up rates across the globe, and 40 percent of them are creating jobs for others. Entrepreneurship offers them a way out, but not an easy fix. While larger enterprises have the capacity to adhere to business integrity standards and regulations to grow their business, startups often struggle.
That is why in 2019, Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, and UNDP’s Fair Biz team initiated a collaboration to provide young entrepreneurs and startup ecosystem enablers with guidance and tools. The Business Integrity Toolkit for Young Entrepreneurs is a collective action project that kickstarted the co-creation of solutions to support young companies in their path to not only survive the pandemic, but to grow sustainable businesses with integrity. Young people were empowered and capacitated through both regional and national level trainings.
One year on, we caught up with several of the young entrepreneurs that have been involved in the project, to learn what they have gained and how they have applied this knowledge in their daily lives and business operations.
Undoing the normalization of corruption
Corruption is everywhere. We hear about it every day, especially during the pandemic. But the reason we see more news about it is not only because there is more corruption, it is because people are more aware of it, and willing to talk about it. Awareness and transparency are among the best antidotes to corruption.
Several participants shared that the training and the toolkit had opened their eyes to seeing the daily reality of corruption in their countries and societies, beyond the large-scale scandals that reach the news.
Hearing from experts and sharing among peers helped them realize that just because something happens all the time and might seem normal, does not mean it is right. Questioning social norms and undoing the normalization of corrupt practices is key to addressing it.
The Business Integrity Toolkit for Young Entrepreneurs features real-life case studies that give insights on dealing with conflicts of interest, facilitation payments and other challenges every entrepreneur is prone to face.
Others highlighted the power of solidarity and the importance of knowing that business integrity is compatible with social norms and that change is possible. Case studies of how some managed to grow while maintaining business integrity, not only serve as inspiration and suggestions on how to do, but more importantly, give hope that it can be done.
Jey, an entrepreneur with Me.reka from Malaysia, who participated in the development of the Toolkit, explained how he found a sense of community among the workshop participants and a support system to persist when things get difficult. The experience stimulated him to start his own campaign to combat corruption.
Even the smallest changes can have impact
Participants also highlighted the specific tips and tools they were able to incorporate on an individual level. Whether in the form of internal control mechanisms like a checklist for employees, reminders on the importance of receipts, or the use of risk analysis; several young entrepreneurs mentioned how sometimes the smallest changes, induced by a tool or a comment, had great impact.
The project developed a simple exercise, for example, to help entrepreneurs convert their personal values into a code of conduct. The premise being that knowing yourself and understanding your ethical principles both guide your personal life but also determine how you will conduct your business.
One participant shared: “I was able to deliberate on what I had been vaguely thinking about until now by putting it into concrete words. I felt that I needed to sharpen my management vision.”
Some of the participants who work directly on the ground in their communities noted that for many small business owners the broader normative narrative of accountability and compliance might be hard to comprehend, but the practical tools offered in the Toolkit are relatable and useful.
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Indonesia, Erryza had to start working from home, as did her staff. This presented the small business owner with new challenges. Adapting to this new way of working pushed her to create a simple internal control mechanism that helped them grow the business while reducing risks. Beyond putting her own “house in order”, Erryza is also determined to support other women entrepreneurs in her community, by sharing the knowledge, skills, and tools about business integrity with them.
Compliance is key for growth
Even with good will and great effort, the complexity of rules and regulations can be overwhelming, especially for startups and young social entrepreneurs, who lack experience, knowledge, and the network to circumvent red tape. Regulations might change or rules might seem contradictory. When clear guidelines or guidance were lacking, the project gave participants the motivation to stay the course.
At the same time, the project helped participants realize that to be able to grow as a business and as a professional such compliance is essential. Compliance needs to be fully mainstreamed across and throughout an entire organizational structure and cannot be compartmentalized. A painful process, but key for growth.
MYEO, a youth development social enterprise based in Myanmar, is a rising star within the local startup scene. The company grew exponentially in 2020 and a lot of their “growing pains” were the result of complying with regulations and setting up internal control mechanisms.
MYEO founder Htet shared the team’s struggle to build these procedures and systems with minimal guidance and human resources. Beyond their personal commitment to integrity, the MYEO team’s motivation also came from requirements from potential donors. Htet recognized the Toolkit as an important ally in their journey to do business with integrity.
All young entrepreneurs that gave feedback on the trainings and toolkits highlighted appreciation for what they had learned and gained. All identified elements that they had started to incorporate in their daily lives and businesses and mentioned seeds of change springing from their efforts. No ground shattering impact just yet, but then again, Rome was not built in a day, and the battle against corruption is a long one. One that, with the contributions of the young social entrepreneurs from across Asia-Pacific, some day we will win.
Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.
The Promoting a Fair Business Environment in ASEAN Regional Project or “FairBiz” helps six ASEAN countries – Thailand, Myanmar, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia - to realise their potential by fostering a governance environment that ensures all businesses in the region compete fairly and with integrity. The project, which is funded by the UK Prosperity Fund through its ASEAN Economic Reform Programme, brings together stakeholders from government, business sector and civil society organisations in ASEAN to co-create that environment, supported by technical expertise and other resources.