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Empowering vulnerable populations through transformative approaches and research

Empowering vulnerable populations through transformative approaches and research

Complex Societal Impact Projects Requiring Tri-Sector Collaboration and Cooperation

Two years ago, HEC Montréal launched the result of numerous consultations that led to updating its mission: to building on our excellence in teaching and research. HEC Montréal is a French-language institution open to the world and solidly rooted in Quebec society, training management leaders who make a responsible contribution to the success of organisations and sustainable social development.

HEC Montréal’s renewed mission echoes the willingness of faculty members to rethink business practices to make them more sustainable and more inclusive. The SEED project is a case study within HEC Montréal’s research ecosystem led by our Social Impact Hub, IDEOS, that illustrates how rethinking research methods and collaborations across sectors and across cultures can amplify opportunities for the economic empowerment of vulnerable populations.

About HEC Montreal’s social impact hub: IDEOS

The mission of IDEOS – Social Impact Hub at HEC Montréal is to raise awareness and provide support for the HEC Montréal community, organisations, and entrepreneurs, as well as to disseminate knowledge by placing social impact at the heart of its actions.

IDEOS addresses two main issues that have surfaced from the results of its research and transfer projects, business coaching projects, and collaborations with various stakeholders. These issues include the need to professionalise civil society organisations and social enterprises1, as well as the need to mainstream social impact into more traditional business models. Both the increasing numbers and diversity of organisations with a social mission and the inclusion of social and environmental dimensions into for-profit organisations drive IDEOS’ activities, which include training, coaching, and research and transfer programmes.

About the seed project and its methodology

Scaling Entrepreneurship for Economic Development (SEED) exemplifies IDEOS’ approach and its positive impact. SEED leverages research, as well as local expertise and knowledge, to enhance the capacities of local partners in different countries (Sri Lanka, Haiti, Tunisia and Colombia), supporting micro-enterprises as a key driver for local development. In addition to working with local partners, SEED brings together Desjardins International Development (DID)2, international funding agencies and three scholars from three partner universities: the University of Navarra, the University of Alberta, and the University of Michigan3.

The goal of SEED is to create a network of international and local promoters of entrepreneurship programmes, as well as international and local researchers with expertise in entrepreneurial scaling. The purpose of this cross-sector partnership is to lead and mobilise research using field experiments and business cases to create a validated methodology to develop the capacities of local promoters in addressing the barriers often experienced by micro-enterprises. The methodology developed in the context of these field experiments is shared with local promoters in different contexts to multiply its impacts.

Below, the four different phases of the SEED projects will be outlined while detailing the different actions and activities that are undertaken in each specific phase. It is important to note that prior to starting Phase 1, the initial agreement with DID, the local partner institution, the SEED research team, and the international funding agencies involved have already been approved and agreed upon by the different partners in the project.

Likewise, prior to initiating Phase 1, there has been an identification of the target population and the geographic area of the intervention. In this way, the principal elements guiding the start of the project are known to all partners involved.

Phase 1: Exploratory phase – Understanding the ecosystem

Phase 1 is the exploratory research phase. This phase is usually undertaken over a period of approximately two months while collaborating with the international and local partners involved in the project. This phase consists of an extensive literature review and interviews with key informants to better comprehend the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the project’s target population.

The literature review is conducted by the research team and supported by DID and the local partners, giving access to the most recent documentation and reports about the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. The interviews in this phase are conducted with a variety of stakeholders to obtain a multifaceted perspective of the ecosystem. These interviews are conducted with persons from the target population (for example, women entrepreneurs), as well as other key stakeholders, such as members of the local partner organisation, other entrepreneurship support organisations, regional experts from international or local NGOs, and academics from local universities, etc.

The information gathered in Phase 1 from the literature review and stakeholder interviews will aid in identifying the barriers and challenges the target population faces. These preliminary insights on the barriers and gaps in service offerings that have been identified in the ecosystem are compiled and presented by the SEED research team to the partner institutions.

Phase 2: Co-development of training content with local partners and trainers

Once all the partners involved in the project have a clear vision of the challenges to be addressed, Phase 2 commences. This phase is crucial, as it consists of the co-design of the entrepreneurship training programme with local partners and a selection of trainers who will be responsible for delivery.

During this four-to-six-month phase, two distinct versions of the training programme are created in an iterative fashion, both of which will be tested with the selected population, allowing comparison of quantitative data collected during the delivery of the training and qualitative data collected in semi-structured interviews post-delivery. The training of the trainers delivering the programme (ToT) and a pilot are also conducted during this phase. The pilot is used to test the different training programmes with a small group of entrepreneurs to get final feedback before delivery. Sometimes, the research team is present when both the ToT and a pilot are conducted.

Phase 3: Delivery of training programme and data collection

Phase 3 consists of the delivery of the training programme, which takes place over a period of four to eight weeks and applies an experimental approach. During this period, the two distinct training programmes mentioned above are delivered to entrepreneurs randomly distributed in different groups by trainers who have also been randomly assigned.

Trainers are usually paired with other trainers or project managers from local promoters who have a deep understanding of the project to secure quality in the delivery. Throughout the delivery, the participants fill out multiple data collection forms, providing the research team with baseline data and information about potential variations of independent variables. The data from these forms are then used for quantitative analysis to uncover significant patterns in the research variables of interest.

Phase 4: Learning experience with partners

Phase 4 involves conducting semi-structured interviews with an extensive range of stakeholders with different roles within the local entrepreneurial ecosystem. Several weeks after the delivery of the training programme, the research team interviews stakeholders over a period of one to two months. Some interviews take place online to accommodate stakeholders’ availability, but most interviews are carried out in person.

Once all quantitative and qualitative data is collected, it is analysed by the SEED research team to extract key findings relative to the effects of the programme on different variables of interest. These findings and subsequent recommendations are shared with the project partners. Local entrepreneurship promoters can then apply these recommendations to scale up the training content and format that has been validated through this analysis. Moreover, promoters can consider the evidence-supported success factor in their delivery to the target populations.

Implementation and empowerment of entrepreneurs in multiple countries

Over the last five years, we had the chance to apply this methodology entirely or partially in four different countries: Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Colombia and Haiti. We have implemented all four phases described in the last section in these countries except for Haiti.

In Sri Lanka, we collaborated with a local organisation called Sanasa (local financial cooperative) and started developing a case study methodology to understand barriers and opportunities for rural entrepreneurs, especially women. Based on this work, we designed, in collaboration with Sanasa, a field experimental training programme, which we tested among more than 500 entrepreneurs. Our findings allowed Sanasa to test the efficacy of the training before rolling it out to more than 8,000 rural entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka4.

In Tunisia, and in partnership with a local organisation called ‘Centre Financier aux Entrepreneurs (CFE)’, we first undertook an exploratory phase to better understand how formal institutions create opportunities and constraints for women entrepreneurs. We then developed, in collaboration with CFE, a pilot training programme to address some of the limits and opportunities we had observed in the first phase. We deployed a field experiment in three cities to test our two training programmes with 150 women entrepreneurs. Based on our results, the CFE training programme was adapted and replicated in another eight cities in the country, impacting a further 350 women in one year5.

In Colombia, we also started with an exploratory phase and, in collaboration with a local organisation called Finanfuturo, we identified barriers to women’s entrepreneurship in the region of Manizales. Based on this, we co-created a training programme with Finanfuturo to improve women entrepreneurs’ capacity to innovate, grow their businesses, and enhance their personal empowerment. We followed with a field experiment, testing the trained (treatment) against a control group with more than 150 women entrepreneurs, evaluating the impact of the training on the main dependent variables. The programme is currently in preparation to be scaled up.

In Haiti, the project consisted only of the first phase, as the project responded to one specific need of the local organisation: mapping the entrepreneurial ecosystem. In this way, we could better understand the formal institutions in the country promoting or creating barriers to entrepreneurial activity. This project involved 50 local organisations offering entrepreneurship support and 50 entrepreneurs6. A follow-up project will be deployed in 2024 to develop a field experiment and test different ways to work on the capacity to innovate entrepreneurs, their growth aspirations, and feelings of empowerment.

These projects have allowed us to implement our mixed-method approach through our four phases methodology. We saw that we could bring our rigorous research-oriented approach to support DID and local organisations in supporting entrepreneurs in marginalised conditions.

The importance of impact and SEED’s methodology

The development of these types of projects using this methodological structure is important and pertinent for projects in multiple contexts. Each context exhibits its own unique barriers that inhibit the development of entrepreneurs and the growth of businesses. Thus, using this methodology, it is possible to navigate the idiosyncrasies of each context, tailoring it to the entrepreneurs’ realities.

One of the key elements that make this methodology effective is its adaptability. This methodology leaves space for creativity, according to the needs of each project, where adaptation is achieved through co-creation with local actors. This co-creation involves both the academic experts in entrepreneurship as well as the local entrepreneurship promoters who are experts in their local entrepreneurial environment. It is crucial to note as well that using a strategic external partner, such as the SEED research team, composed of researchers based in Canada, the USA, and Europe, and not developing the projects directly with the funding agencies helps to address power imbalances that can be present in development projects.

Likewise, the Training-of-trainers (ToT) is an important element in enhancing the capacity of local entrepreneurship promoters. This is significant as the local experts are part of the content development process, which begins in Phase 2. The trainers are directly involved in the development of the training content and are instrumental in contextualising the contents and adapting it to their entrepreneurial environment.

This has proven to be vital in the positive reception of the programmes by the local target population as the content caters to their context. Working with the trainers on the development of the content helps with creating examples tailored to the field, adapting exercises and homework suitable for the target population, as well as best translating the training to the local language or dialect.

Through the training of local experts throughout the whole project process, and specifically in the ToT, the knowledge created stays in-country. In this way, the local partners take ownership of the project throughout the different phases. For each country, once the project ends, it is possible for the local partner to continue delivering the training to a greater number of entrepreneurs in the local context as they have access to all the training materials. Throughout the process, they become the content experts capable of continuing to deliver the programme without further intervention from development entities.

In terms of academic impact, SEED allows the research team to work on three main outputs. First, research papers are prepared based on collected data and are submitted to conferences and top-tier journals. The significance of this element lies in the fact that generating and disseminating knowledge is a crucial aspect of a scholar’s professional journey.

Second, PhD and Masters students participate in the projects, using data to produce their dissertations and having the opportunity of exposure to action research, societal impact, and publication opportunities. Finally, concepts, models, and lessons learned in these projects by scholars participating in the projects are used back in their own universities and integrated into courses and seminars provided to students in the Global North.

Towards more equitable access to education and greater economic autonomy

Capacity-building is at the heart of the SEED project, which provides various opportunities to build bridges across the development and academic sectors. The approach used in this methodology provides valuable insights into how action research collaborations can be more inclusive, empowering community groups that have traditionally been excluded by conventional top-down training or technical expertise transfer models. By creating a platform for recognising and utilising local expertise and facilitating cross-sectoral, cross-country, and cross-cultural collaboration, the SEED methodology enables the development of local capacity, gradually reducing reliance on external funding and expertise.

It is important to highlight that DID is part of a broader set of international NGOs in Canada that, over the years, have sent abroad thousands of volunteers interested in lending their time and sharing their expertise to support local communities. However, as Tiessen et al. (2021) point out, very little research has focused on the complementary contributions of international development volunteers in local community development efforts7.

In practical terms, given the complexity of the international volunteer sector, few resources are allocated to research efforts that provide evidence to allow for a continuous improvement of capacity-building methodologies and testing new models based on rigorous data and analysis. A direct collaboration between researchers with different areas of expertise provides DID’s local partners with access to knowledge and expertise that would be difficult to find and fund. Country partners have access to research findings and can provide feedback.

One of the elements that make the SEED project unique is its approach to partnerships across sectors and across the North-South divide. Through a meaningful engagement of communities throughout the project, it provides enabling conditions for new knowledge creation while also avoiding any imposition of methodologies that may not be appropriate for the cultural context in the countries where the project operates.

As explained above, the contents of the training are co-constructed with local partners, allowing for consideration of the multiple realities of target populations who are traditionally excluded from mainstream financial or business incubation services, such as women and youth. These practices allow alternative approaches to capacity development to emerge, increasing the agency of local partners, as opposed to considering them as mere beneficiaries of a technical expertise transfer project.

The SEED methodology also allows the integration of elements of capacity development that are key for the economic empowerment of vulnerable populations, such as challenging gender norms or deeply ingrained social norms that hinder entrepreneurship. Participants in SEED training and research activities become part of a larger social innovation ecosystem.

This broad social innovation ecosystem spreads to communities in Canada as well. HEC Montréal IDEOS has applied key lessons learned with communities overseas to its collaboration with different partner organisations in Canada that work with underserved communities. One success factor that has been observed in projects supported by the SEED network is the support for identifying community assets, which include knowledge, skills, and social networks, for the benefit of their enterprises and also for themselves.

Constructing training and entrepreneurship incubation programmes and projects collaboratively, with the aim of fostering social capital within communities, has proven to be an effective method for empowering individuals from racialised communities or those with a recent history of immigration. Additionally, it generates knowledge on the critical factors that enable the development of a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem, facilitating the transition from subsistence to market-oriented entrepreneurship.

Finally, a very practical but important consideration is the funding structure of the project. The SEED research team does not directly interact with the project funders (in the current case, Global Affairs Canada) responsible for developing the initiatives. DID assumes the responsibility of allocating funding for activities in the countries where it operates in accordance with its commitments to the funding organisation.

This feature helps lessen the power imbalances that result from differences in access to resources between researchers situated in Canada and Europe and local experts in developing countries. Although this is an element that cannot always be put in place in international development projects, it is important to acknowledge that such programme characteristics can influence the pace at which local partners and communities can build trust and an equal relationship with experts from developed countries.

What to expect: The future of SEED and its contribution to the international development sector

From a broader perspective, our project contributes to current efforts to challenge international development interventions lacking intersectional analysis that could improve how investments and programmes are designed and targeted. Intersectional analysis and an approach that focuses on capabilities (Sen, 2000) help develop the creation of opportunities, awareness, and mobilisation for poor, marginalised, and vulnerable people to access skills, resources, and knowledge to participate in their local economic development8. Our work addresses both the individual and the collective capabilities that create together an enabling environment for under-represented groups, such as women and youth, to thrive.

Our work is particularly relevant in light of the current knowns and unknowns of economic development. We know that even in the best employment situations, population groups that are in a situation of marginalisation face persistent barriers to fully participate in the labour market9. We also know that the effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on women and youth, among other vulnerable groups. We also know that unprecedented technological advances will continue to affect the labour and economic possibilities for populations with unequal access to education and skills development opportunities.

Due to the level of uncertainty linked to market transformations, the international development sector must find new ways of supporting marginalised populations seeking to build sustainable livelihoods. We know that the creation of small and medium-sized businesses by groups such as women and youth can be a powerful solution for self-employment creation while promoting local economic growth.

The stimulation of entrepreneurship and an environment that fosters the democratisation of productivity (Thomas and Hedrick-Wong, 2019) that is allowing vulnerable populations access not only to basic inputs but also to ‘enabling inputs’ (e.g., financial services) and ‘complementary assets’ (social capital, knowledge, professional networks, knowledge, and skills networks)10should be a key priority for the international development sector and its partners.

Going forward, we envision three main goals for the SEED project to increase its impact

First, we want SEED to be a laboratory to test and refine a research collaboration approach that surpasses the current divide between those who believe that interventions from the North can solve issues in the South and those who claim that these types of intervention represent new forms of ‘colonialism’. We do not claim to transfer knowledge to under-skilled populations, and we want to avoid imposing a specific economic model or ideology on populations in the Global South.

We aim at co-creating knowledge with partner communities, local organisations, and partners that can be used both in the South and in the North. At the same time, we recognise that any form of intervention from groups coming from the North (with resources and scientific knowledge) imposes forms of power and can create asymmetric relations. However, we also believe that by being conscious and reflective about it, we can create mechanisms to reduce power asymmetries and allow for more truthful collaboration, where each actor can bring their own contribution.

Second, we want to support entrepreneurs in marginalised conditions to be part of the global movement on socio-ecological transitions. We acknowledge the urgency for action if we want to reverse the current trends contributing to the climate crisis. Local organisations and entrepreneurs are disproportionately impacted by climate change while being able to access fewer resources. We want to contribute to climate justice and support entrepreneurs to adapt or be creators of solutions that will help their regions mitigate the effects of climate change.

Third, we want to be sure that more students can participate in our projects both from the North and South. Up until now, we have engaged mostly students from Masters and PhD programmes, usually from universities in the North, with a few exceptions. We see SEED as a platform to train students to conduct meaningful research that can have an impact at multiple levels (practice, research, teaching, societal, etc.). Allowing students from North and South to work in collaboration is a promising avenue to strengthen knowledge circulation and increase the impact of our projects.

The notion of SEED as a laboratory for experimentation with diverse approaches, content, and methodologies points to a promising future where research, teaching, and outreach are integrated and aligned towards achieving tangible impact.

Empowering vulnerable populations through transformative approaches and research

Footnotes

1 Québec’s Social Economy Act adopted in 2013 institutionalises the social economy sector in the province comprised of cooperatives, mutual societies, and enterprising non-profits. For the purposes of this law, a social purpose is a “purpose that is not centred on monetary profit, but on service to members or the community and is characterised, in particular, by an enterprise’s contribution to the well-being of its members or the community and the creation of sustainable, high-quality jobs.” Social Economy Act, L.R.Q. (2013). Chapter E-1.1.1, retrieved from https://www. legisquebec.gouv.qc.ca/en/document/cs/E-1.1.1

2 Founded by the largest cooperative in Canada, Desjardins Group, Desjardins International Development (DID) is an international development organisation based in Canada that helps people take control of their finances and leverage available tools and resources. DID has been offering technical assistance and investment services in the inclusive finance sector for developing countries since 1970. https://www.desjardins.com/qc/en/about-us/community/ international-development.html

3 SEED has been funded in the past by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and DID through the financial contribution by Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

4 Développement international Desjardins (2021). Conclusion du projet EFECS au Sri Lanka https://www.desjardins.com/qc/fr/nouvelles/integres-chaine-valeur.html

5 Pôle Ideos (2021). Présentation du programme de formation Leadership pour les femmes entrepreneures. https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=BkuupZ9WRAE

6 SEED Network (2021). Coordinating for Growth and Innovation. Haitian Entrepreneurial Ecosystem. Report presented to Développement international Desjardins. https://ideos.hec.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/2021018_SEED_Haiti_Report_MASTER. FINAL-version-reduite.pdf

7 Tiessen, R., S. Rao and B.J. Lough (2021) International Development Volunteering as Transformational Feminist Practice for Gender Equality, Journal of Developing Societies, 37(1) pp.30-56. doi: 10.1177/0169796X20972260.

8 Sen, A. (2000) Development as Freedom. New York: Anchor Books

9 Data from the most recent ILO report on youth employment trends confirms that young people have been disproportionately affected by the economic and employment consequences of the pandemic and that the pace of recovery of youth labour markets in many countries and regions is falling behind that of the labour market for older workers. In the same vein, the UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs asserts that the pandemic resulted in a disproportionate job loss for informal workers, particularly for women, in 2020. The subsequent recovery from the impact of COVID-19 has been driven by informal employment, which has caused a slight increase in the incidence of informality. ILO (2022) Global Employment Trends for Youth 2022. Investing in transforming futures for young people. International Labour Organization; UNDESA (2023) SDG 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Progress and Info. https://sdgs.un.org/goals/ goal8

10 Thomas, H. and Y. Hedrick-Wong (2019) Inclusive Growth: The Global Challenges of Social Inequality and Financial Inclusion. Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing

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