Hope in Hopeless Settings

August 21, 2012

By Oana Branzei, Western University

Poverty. Conflict. Draught. Death. Hunger. Domestic Violence.

Not giving up.

Understanding how one summons and sustains hope in the face of scarcity and adversity stretches the straightjacket of organizational theories to make room for understanding life at its extremes—and reconnects us to the people living full and inspiring lives despite overcoming significant hurdles, every day.

Business provides a much-needed pretext and a constructive context for (re)building lives and livelihoods. For the past five years, I have worked with and learned from women and youth as part of several long-term enterprise interventions that have taken place in East Africa—Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda and Uganda. The most striking takeaway has been the unusual promise business holds in these settings: as a life-changing and life-giving force.

The tougher the going got, the greater the trust—faith, even—that business can open a long-awaited path out of such hardship, for individuals, their families, and for their communities. And the more persistent the hopelessness they once faced, the more hope-full their (re)engagement in business activities.

Hope is a dynamic process which emerges and evolves one exchange at a time. Going about the mundane tasks of producing and consuming, or buying and selling, nurture the social interactions on which traditional markets relied—and most subsistence marketplaces still depend on.

When conflict or natural disaster tear the fabric of society apart, business opportunities help individuals and communities imagine and bring about a new, different, better future—instead of piecing their past livelihoods back together.

Business is also a tool for restoring hope in others. Having a task to do, for example, goes far beyond making a living: it often rekindles the motivation to dream about a better life.

Social status is bestowed on those who leverage business to make a difference in other people’s lives. Becoming somebody, many patiently explained to me, is getting oneself into a position where one can finally help many others.

Riding the roller-coaster of hope is not for the faint-hearted. Growth is often non-linear and painful. But success lifts the aspirations of many others, creating an ever farther-reaching cycle of hope.

Hope is foundational to business, markets, and society:

  • Theories of entrepreneurship—effectuation, emancipation, dreaming and becoming—are premised on one’s ability and opportunity to first envision a future better than the past.
  • Theories of markets have strayed away from their social origins and the human connectivity still at the root of value creation; but market exchanges can be—should be—hope-giving.
  • Theories of social change describe pathways to better livelihoods; the dynamic process of hope sheds new light on the will and the ways to fuller, richer lives in any setting.

Understanding how business can restore hope in hopeless settings helps us: develop more resilient markets and communities; promote more generative forms of business; design new platforms that interconnect business and society; and welcome business back as a positive force in our own lives.

For further information:

Branzei, O. (2012). Social Change Agency Under Adversity: How Relational Processes (Re)produce Hope in Hopeless Settings. In K. Golden-Biddle & J. Dutton (Eds.), Using a positive lens to explore social change and organizations: Building a theoretical and research foundation. Part II: Change Agency, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group.

Branzei, O. and Abdelnour, S. (2010). Another Day, Another Dollar: Enterprise Resilience in Conflict, the Journal of International Business Studies, Special Issue on Conflict, Security and Political Risk: International Business in Challenging Times, 41(5): 804–825.

Branzei, O., Sharp, D., Kelly, J., Siddiqui, O., (2009). Yogurt Mamas: Probiotics in Tanzania, Ivey Publishing.