Expeditionary Entrepreneurship and Local Capacity Building in Puerto Rico
By: Jesse Levin
Photos: Jesse Levin
There is a typical one two punch in disaster response scenarios. The first blow on Puerto Rico came from Maria. The island’s bones were rattled. The communications infrastructure was shattered, the power grid decimated and municipal water distribution lines and road systems were severely impaired. Yet, she stood. The Puerto Ricans’, emblazoned with a sense of pride, unfathomable patience, resilience and good-natured optimism, stood, and continue to stand together. The second blow, which continues to make impact, came from the least likely of places – the “aid community.”
A funny thing happens in the direst of circumstances. The best in people, and the greatest potential in community, at least at the local level, is often brought to light. The “heroes” in these disaster recovery scenarios are not the ones you are likely to hear about or see in the media . They are the individuals and the organizations with the greatest vested interest and the greatest capacity to help facilitate recovery. They are the local merchants and entrepreneurs from the impacted areas.
The importance of local commerce is rarely understood until its absence is viscerally felt by customers and the community. What happens when cell phones don’t work, internet is down, power is out, and there is no running water and roads are non-navigable? How do you get money from ATM’s to make purchases? How do you buy food when you can’t use credit cards? How do you communicate, or handle medical emergencies when you cant’ contact emergency responders? This was the waking reality in Puerto Rico, and still is in a lot of places around the island. On top of all of that, what happens when you lose a job because businesses can’t function as a result of the lack of basic infrastructure? In response to these circumstances local communities, merchants and entrepreneurs have banded together in incredible ways to adapt and overcome.
Rehabilitation of local commerce is one of the quickest ways to address many of these challenges and the local merchants in Puerto Rico wasted no time in doing their best to rise to the occasion. Many of the immediate needs required by a jeopardized community are in fact available locally. Remote, small-scale food markets were open days after the storm running on generator. Small bakeries did what they could to make sure everyone in their small towns at least had bread whether they could pay or not. These efforts were their form of aid, which they funded out of their own pocket, working to pay their employees, selling food on credit and otherwise fighting to remain open with no income to sustain their operations.
There are defined periods in a disaster response lifecycle marked by an immediate response period and then a shift to medium and long-term recovery. In the immediate aftermath of large-scale occurrences, like in Puerto Rico, certain life saving “aid” is needed to address the acute challenges faced by the aforementioned circumstances. These include, water, medical food, shelter logistical support etc. There is, however, a very clear turning point, often not long after the disaster hits where the majority of this external aid starts to have a detrimental affect.
Imagine a local food market owner that has struggled to keep doors open despite being starved of any income to purchase supplies or pay their overhead. Yet they remained open to sustain their community as critical infrastructure. As things normalize, connectivity is restored and they are once again able to take credit cards and generally sell, they find themselves competing with the aid drops, that in many cases take place around the corner from their shops. They have fought to keep water and food stocked throughout the emergency, and once things quieted down instead of being able to recover they are further strained by the large amounts of free water and questionable foodstuffs that are being dropped into their communities at a point well after being needed. Again, there is a time, a place and a need for this sort of relief, but the timeframe is finite. If not respected, these aid drops cause more harm than good, undercutting natural economic stability and normalization activity, creating environments of further dependency.
The aid community is well intentioned and well resourced, but if dissected, it is based on a premise of dependence. The general sentiment of the public, after a large occurrence is to send things and to flood an area with external stuff in hopes of helping. Again, there is a finite period when this maybe is needed. But more often than not, these resources are available locally, and any external supplies brought in at great expense and logistical difficulty often directly undercut local providers. Undercutting local providers further strains the economy, and as a result, hinders the overall recovery process. This negative cycle is not malicious, but is simply a result of slightly misguided intent, an NGO model that perpetuates it and a general lack of understanding and misconception around nuances inherent to what is in fact reality in regards to cultural and situational relevance given the specific incident and environment.
It has been our experience that the best thing the “relief and aid” community can do for an impacted region is to provide immediate life saving support and then get fully behind local efforts or get out of the way. This rarely happens. We would like to suggest an alternative approach to aid to replace the typical response after life saving activities during the recovery phases. This is an approach predicated on a paradigm of independence and resiliency vs. dependence, and requires a fundamental shift in how the general public perceives aid and chooses to support such activities. This is a solution based on providing resources to more rapidly bolster and support local economic rejuvenation in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Not in lieu of other efforts but in concert with them.
Expeditionary entrepreneurship (ExEn) is a capability designed to bring economic recovery and stability expertise and resources to last mile merchants and local economic force multipliers. To date, there is not a defined tool or place within the overall response ecosystem dedicated to economic stability operations. ExEn is meant to fill this void by providing a rapidly deployable, well organized and resourced group of entrepreneurial experts seasoned in operating in austere humanitarian and disaster response environments. The soul objective of the capability is to bring aid; specifically in the form of an enhanced capacity to more rapidly reignite locally impaired commerce directly to the local merchant and entrepreneur. When this is successfully accomplished rapidly in the direct aftermath of a large-scale occurrence, achieving regional stability in impacted areas can be greatly expedited.
Entrepreneurs are often able to identify systemic challenges, solution engineer and implement fixes quicker than more traditional response capacities be it government or otherwise. That is not a negative or a slight, and in point of fact government, DOD and other more conventional resources can greatly amplify ExEn efforts. Entrepreneurs, simply by nature, are able to implement quicker, fail faster and adapt more rapidly than most traditional response resources. This is an imperative capacity in disaster response and recovery operations and its time to scale it.
Tactivate has launched the Tactivate Team House in Puerto Rico to serve as an entry point and base of operations for creative entrepreneurial solution engineers that want to get involved in the response and recovery efforts on the island.
Expeditionary Entrepreneurship in action:
Here is a look at how a down and dirty entrepreneurial fix to the food and water distribution problem reconnected the offline social assistance point of sale systems to empower over $420,000 in purchases made at strategically re-connected local markets.