Why We Left The
UN To Join The
Nearly three years ago, the turquoise Mediterranean Sea was sparkling in the distance as we typed away on our laptops, ceiling fans buzzing overhead, coffees by our side.
In the distance was the arid, dusty desert of neighboring Libya, sand from which was slowly taking over the office. Excel sheets showed the latest refugee movements — data to be compiled into the next Situational Reports.
Phones were ringing off the hook. Coworkers were frantically running around, coordinating the movement of the crowds of new arrivals from the Tunisian border into Shousha Camp, just a few miles away.
Gaddafi, the former Libyan ruler, had just been ousted and killed. Tens of thousands were now fleeing Libya following the violence and turmoil. Most were innocent civilians, having lost their livelihoods and even their loved ones.
We were sitting on the edge of this war zone. We were two of the hundreds of the UN’s emergency relief staff brought in to support the Refugee Agency in Tunisia.
It was a massive operation to prevent what could have been a massive humanitarian crisis.
Working with the UN Refugee Agency, our jobs were to interview, register and advocate for durable solutions on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled into Tunisia from the violence in neighboring Libya.
There was a lot of pressure to work quickly and efficiently. The rights and well-being of so many displaced people depended on our ability to discern their situation, ensure and support their right to seek asylum, and effectively advocate for a proper recourse, including finding safe refuge.
These were our dream jobs.
Little did we know that less than a year later, we’d leave it all behind to start, of all things, a fashion company.
Through the course of our work, we’d developed a strong friendship. (A friendship that would eventually lead to marriage.)
We had both been working at the Refugee Agency for several years and we clicked right away. We both loved our work for the UN. It was intense, thrilling, depressing, joyful and immensely rewarding. And most of all, it helped people — people who desperately needed it.
At the same time, we couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more we could be doing. Yes, providing aid in the midst of instability is crucial. But what if something could be done about the instability itself?
Would an alternative approach to creating positive change, of even the smallest degree, help tackle instability in the long run?
After all, we figured, our UN roles could be filled by any number of qualified candidates ready and willing to replace us, but not everyone was ready to strike out on their own to try something totally different.
And so our days became split in two — providing aid in the field by day, and then sitting around at night, theorizing alternative and creative solutions to the inequity and hardship we were now accustomed to seeing around the world.
Mohammed Bouazizi was a vegetable cart owner and sole earner for his family, which included six siblings. His job was far from good-paying, but Tunisia also wasn’t a country described as “opportunity-rich” at the time.
Working as a street vendor, Bouazizi was regularly targeted for bribes by the police, who themselves were given a pittance for wages.
On the morning of December 17th, 2010, Bouazizi had his vegetable cart and produce confiscated by police. He was already $200 in debt — money he’d borrowed to buy the produce he would sell that day.
After several unsuccessful attempts to have his cart returned to him, Bouazizi went to police headquarters just before midday, and proceeded to douse himself in gasoline and set himself on fire.
Street protests ensued. Police responded heavy-handedly. Things turned very violent. It was a horrific incident that incited nearly a month of protests, violence and ultimately many deaths across Tunisia, a country which had become unstable due to high levels of unemployment, inflation and corruption under the 23-year presidency of Ben Ali.
Together the incidents, which forced Ben Ali to flee the country, became known as the Jasmine Revolution, named after Tunisia’s national flower.
The Jasmine Revolution was the first of a series of revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring, the catalysts for which were related to basic economic issues.
We latched onto these events as clues towards finding where we might be able to create change. It was astonishing to see just how much political instability was caused by economic unrest.
We found ourselves, in the midst of our search for alternatives to our current roles, and at the downright offense of our humanitarian spirits, wondering if somehow, just maybe, our answer could be in the world of business.
Having worked in humanitarian contexts, one was often quick to dismiss business as bottom-line hungry, selfish and lacking moral judgment. And for a fair, though narrow-focused, reason — unaccountable capitalism has brutally proven time and again that not all business is good business. Too often, corporations refuse to provide fair support to their workers, let alone the environment.
Then again, the promises of business were starting to connect with us more personally than ever. We had witnessed firsthand that economic instability, spurred on by high unemployment, can lead to horrific violence, displacement and unnecessary deaths.
Not only that, but everywhere we went, we were meeting people with incredible talent and creativity who, even in the harshest conditions, with few resources and opportunity, were able to do incredible things with their craft.
We’d become convinced that people have every capacity to help themselves if given a level playing field.
We wanted to be part of leveling that playing field, and we came to believe that business could have the power to do it.
Which returned us to the unshakeable question: what would happen if business accepted its moral and ethical position?
What if it paid fair wages and provided support to its workers despite poorly regulated legal frameworks? Going even further, what if it considered the environment, taking responsibility for where and how it sourced its materials?
Could it mean changed lives for thousands? Tens of thousands? More? Could it mean the UN wouldn’t have to step in as much, or in as many places?
Before long, we decided that we wanted to be on the forefront of creating positive change through business: job opportunities with fair wages, training, access to loans and advance payments. We wanted to support communities and self-sufficiency from the ground up, not by dictating how communities develop, but rather investing in people’s own initiatives so they could develop things themselves.
We wanted to combine our humanitarian principles with a strong and fair economic model that uses business as the vehicle to change how things work. Because there shouldn’t have to be another Bouazizi who would set himself on fire just because his basic human rights were not respected.