Small business support programmes need to deliver in the wake of the pandemic

May 05, 2022 | 10:56
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While not yet through the darkness, greater access to vaccines and better treatments illuminate a future without a crippling global health pandemic, says Winnie Wong, Mastercard country manager for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Small business support programmes need to deliver in the wake of the pandemic
Winnie Wong, Mastercard country manager for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos

For many, however, the fading health threats will be replaced with the cruel reality that economic hardship does not recede as easily. The economic aftermath continues to disproportionately affect the poor. In Vietnam, over 1.4 million people became unemployed last year, and more than 90,000 businesses withdrew from the market in the first 9 months.

Thus far, the philanthropic response to the pandemic has been tremendous across all sectors from health to education and the economy. Corporates and charitable organisations have increased the scale of their giving, granted at record speed and with fewer conditions, and have increased their partnerships with others, such as the creation of the Therapeutics Accelerator. To build back better, multilateral organisations have also come together to co-invest.

However, as the situation wears on, this positive momentum risks not matching the scale of the damage, particularly on small businesses that are struggling to survive the ongoing economic effects. It is also unrealistic to hope that governments or even generous philanthropists can and will provide the prolonged financial support required to help the growing number of small businesses that are in need. The hard truth, unfortunately, is that there aren’t enough financial resources available to catalyse positive social impacts at the scale that the world now requires.

As a result, change-makers spanning governments, society, and the private sector are grappling with the question of how to have more of an impact with the same or even fewer resources. Without an unyielding waterfall of money, we need a new approach to the ways we think and act. We need ways to build on economic development best practices and innovate to reach the masses.

Having over 15 years of experience working with governments and corporations to spearhead the adoption of business-to-business platforms to help improve the efficiency of cross-border trade in Asia-Pacific, I believe that adopting two key priorities can make a transformative difference. These are to leverage technology to test in real-time and to accept a different risk-reward ratio over an extended duration.

Priority 1: Leveraging technology to empower entrepreneurs is critical if we want to respond to the magnitude of needs.

Using technology, digital tools, and real-time data facilitates timely course corrections and opens the possibility of rapidly reaching millions of small businesses with key knowledge to help them remain competitive. To optimise this potential, we need to create widely available and easy to understand digital training that is pragmatic. The goal should be to raise business owners’ baseline level of knowledge by flooding digital channels with culturally appropriate, self-guided learning opportunities that are always available.

In Vietnam, we collaborate with partners to empower millions of small business owners with the skills and know-how they need to expand their operations and create more jobs in local communities. For example, through an innovative programme called Ignite, which is organised by CARE International Vietnam and supported by the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, we provide women entrepreneurs wrap-around training so that they can build their digital skills, strengthen their business practices, receive mentoring advice, and foster stronger professional network connections.

But this is not the whole story. Technology alone is not the panacea. Technology can help raise the baseline for business know-how, but inevitably there are topics which are simply too complex and necessitate in-person support. Applying product development principles, we have used a test-and-learn approach to create data that enables us to pivot more quickly and to assess when in-person support should complement digital tools. This enables us to be more cost efficient and allows us to extend our impact from tens of thousands of small businesses to millions.

Priority 2: The traditional risk-return calculation of philanthropy is flawed and it needs to adapt. Beyond employing technology, we need to re-think when and how we calculate programmatic success and return on philanthropic investment.

The World Bank concludes that many development programmes have been unable to capture the realised impact because the timeframe in which they measured was too short. In our effort to be good fiduciaries of philanthropic investment, we do not allow for the possibility that entrepreneurs may have alternative criteria for deciding when to take risks and when to change their business-as-usual practices.

With new applications of technology, we can empower small business owners to assess different advice and implement what best matches their risk appetite. As responsible practitioners, we should adapt our monitoring and evaluation approaches to measure how these digital tools support small businesses. The availability of data from these digital tools along with qualitative information can fuel our understanding of how small businesses shift from survival to growth mode and help us redefine when and how we measure a programme’s success.

As we rise from the aftermath of the last two years, we must be steadfast in our commitment to scaling solutions from the onset. We need to innovate, build on our collective knowledge, and accept the ambiguity and risk that comes with trying anything new.

Now more than ever, we are faced with an urgent decision. Shall we be driven by the fear of failure and replicate effective livelihood programmes on a small scale? Or shall we be audacious and develop imperfect solutions that leverage technology in new and untested ways? Only the latter will enable us to help millions of small businesses prosper in a world that was changed almost overnight due to the pandemic.

By Winnie Wong

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