Closing the digital divide in Czechia

Plastenco, Czechia. Photo credit: CARE Czechia.

On 31 December 1992, Czechoslovakia was dissolved, with its constituent states becoming the independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Thirty one years later, and the Czech Republic (known as Czechia) and Slovakia rest at #35 and #42, respectively, on today’s GDP list of ranked country’s (based on IMF’s gross domestic product scores).

It won’t surprise the loyal readers of this blog (all three of them) to hear that I’ve not become an overnight economic boffin. Instead, I wanted to share some thoughts about Czechia and, more specifically, STRIVE Czechia, an initiative I’m working on, which supports small businesses in a country that I knew very little about, until now.

Whilst GDP calculations are not typically an accurate picture of personal earnings, these rankings suggest that individual annual earnings in Czechia and Slovakia are in the ballpark of $31,000 and $23,000.

For comparison’s sake, the UK is ranked at #22 with $46,000, and Burundi is at #192 with $249 (which seems too low to be correct, but I’m not the IMF).

I’ve visited Czechia’s capital, Prague, a few times, first in the late 1990’s, and subsequently in the early 2000’s, and I remember it being a very easy city to get to grips with.

Literally being the part of the world from which the concept of “bohemian” originated, the blend of old and new, of traditional and modern, the city’s architecture, its stylish sweep of cafe-lined streets, cobblestone bridges, sculpted lampposts and spires, the wafts of wine-soaked stews coating the senses – all of these things and more (the beer, for starters!) left indelible watermarks on the memory of my formative years, stepping out and into new adventures.

The countryside, I recall, was like a framed antique painting: colourfully etched, and stuck somewhat in time. Long, empty lanes scoring through forests. Wide open blue skies.

After a dozen years living in Saigon, drinking in these memories is a mental tonic, to the daily cauldron of heat and vapors that epitomizes urban Asia.

Anyway, nostalgia relived. To business. Small business, to be more specific.  

STRIVE Czechia: Helping small entrepreneurs grow and succeed in the global digital economy

STRIVE Czechia is a three-year initiative, run by CARE Czechia, and supported by Mastercard, plus an array of partner entities.

And STRIVE is on a mission quite unlike a CARE International programme of old. Why? Because it is not the poorest, or most vulnerable population groups in the country that STRIVE is solely targeting (a criteria that CARE, for many decades, held up as key).

Rather, this work is about economic gains on a macro level, and it is about growing and advancing the country’s private sector.

As a CARE initiative, STRIVE is focused on MSEs (micro and small enterprises) run by women – it hopes to reach 100,000 women run MSEs, out of a total of 250,000 – but it also has ambitions to support at least 10,000 MSEs led, or owned, by displaced Ukrainian entrepreneurs.

STRIVE’s goals are to positively influence the development of the country’s MSEs because, collectively, they make up 99% of Czechia’s economy, and provide employment for 67% of the country’s population. It is MSEs on whom the Government is reliant, when it comes to inching Czechia higher up in next year’s IMF rankings.

Economic gains made by MSEs will support the wider communities and citizens of Czechia. Economic gains made by MSEs will open up opportunities for young people, as well as those more disadvantaged for various reasons.

A core part for the programme is helping MSEs access and benefit from digitalization, given the current situation in the country, whereby low numbers of MSEs are fully benefiting from digitalization, and where many also lack the necessary proficiencies to utilize digital tools and financial products.

Many also don’t have connectivity with peer networks and face the challenges (as most small businesses do) of juggling responsibilities of work and home life. A dynamic that is of particular resonance for women, given the social norms that place them, over men, in positions of responsibility in the household – the systemic “duty of care” that, the world over, prevents women from advancing at the same pace as men, in terms of earning income and having control over resources.

Whilst the modality of how STRIVE is seeking to intervene in Czechia might, on the surface, seem different to how “development” programmes have in the past been delivered (ie targeting the poorest communities) CARE is not new to engaging MSEs, nor to working in partnership with the private sector to do so.

CARE’s IGNITE programme, here in Vietnam: photo credit CARE International

I’ve written continuously about CARE’s collaborations with business for over ten years now, and the tie-up with Mastercard is fast becoming one of the confederation’s signature partnerships.

As part of CARE’s global commitment to support female entrepreneurs, they have already delivered some fantastic outcomes for entrepreneurs in Vietnam, Peru and Pakistan, as part of the IGNITE Programme – an initiative also supported by Mastercard and seeking to close the digital divide for female entrepreneurs.

CARE’s experience in “financial inclusion” (finding ways of reaching the many millions of people cut off from formal financial services) is deep-rooted and has evolved over the past thirty years.

Bringing some of the world’s largest financiers to the table as part of that, has been essential.

The “Banking on Change” partnership (circa. 2009) between CARE, Plan and Barclays was a watershed moment, both for operationally linking up local savings groups to formal structures, and then for how this partnership lobbied, at an institutional level, for a more unilateral banking “Charter” – supported by the World Economic Forum at the time and influencing multiple other business industries.

Not unsurprisingly, in 2014, Mastercard signed up to the Linking for Change Savings Charter (to give it its full title back then) and have continued to promote linkages, as well as the opportunities that digitalization can bring, in terms of confronting income and wealth inequalities.


Returning to STRIVE Czechia, I look forward to sharing more over the summer, as the second year of activities rolls out, including: the creation of a ‘One-Stop Shop’ facility for MSEs to leverage digital and financial resources; and launching further deep-dive research into the challenges and opportunities encountered by Czechian MSEs. All of which will serve to fine-tune how STRIVE best supports the country’s private sector in the future.

Many of the MSEs already engaged in STRIVE speak of the benefits they’ve accessed from the programme. Plastenco (featured in the youtube clip, below) is a sustainable design MSE, and one of the first wave businesses to collaborate with the STRIVE team – sharing their needs, and optimizing the space that STRIVE is holding for open dialogue between private, public, civil society and academia in Czechia (STRIVE is in discussions with the Academy of Sciences currently, to address some of the multi-dimensional issues about gender, mentioned above).

It is through the collaboration with the likes of Plastenco, as well as the combined time and effort of openly engaging other MSEs, that STRIVE can shine a light on just how critical MSEs are to the country’s future economic and social gains.

In closing, and returning to the intricate connection between Czechia and Slovakia, a recent report by the firm sapie, conducted in Slovakia, is worth highlighting, for comparison’s sake to the eco-system inside which STRIVE Czechia is navigating.

To summarize it, Slovak companies – both SMEs and micro-companies – have a “long way to go to close the gap with the digital frontrunners”. As STRIVE has also documented for Czechian MSEs, Slovak entrepreneurs realise the necessity to digitalize, but lack sufficient knowledge, experience and simple financial tools to be able to fully benefit from digitalization.

Raising awareness in Slovakia, the report concludes, about the benefits of harnessing digital tools and platforms, and demonstrating how such tools can help small businesses to “survive, save money, save time, at least retain their position on the market, as well as increase profitability and competitiveness” are perhaps the very cornerstones required in curating a more robust, and enabling, environment for small businesses and enterprises to function.

This needn’t be very different in Czechia, for MSEs. Each country shares similar economic characteristics and societal constructs.

And it is this, and these areas, around which STRIVE – in partnership with others – will concentrate all of its assets and resources going forward.

So, watch this space!

Czechia countryside. Photo credit:

Stuck in our ways

Gaza, 2017. Photo credit: Tim Bishop

I read two things last week, coincidentally connected.

The first was a report from CARE International, offering insights about the impact COVID-19 has had on the local community groups that CARE has been seeking to support for decades.

I commend this report to anyone with an interest in the topic of international development. The analysis is rigorous, yet the recommendations are simple. The tone is calm, but unsettling, given the evidence being shared, which points not to the successes of the international development community, but instead underscores its failures.

It cites how impactful the pandemic has been, in terms of increasing, rather than decreasing, gender inequalities.

It also proposes that far too much potential progress in development is “held back by the deeply colonial approaches” still adopted by global development organisations, including CARE themselves.

Sifting through social media feeds, I then stumbled upon this quote from the novelist and cultural critic, James Baldwin:

“The entire purpose of society is to create a bulwark against the inner and the outer chaos, in order to make life bearable and to keep the human race alive. And it is absolutely inevitable that when a tradition has been evolved, whatever the tradition is, the people, in general, will suppose it to have existed from before the beginning of time and will be most unwilling and indeed unable to conceive of any changes in it. They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity. Their reaction, when it is suggested that they can or that they must, is panic… And a higher level of consciousness among the people is the only hope we have, now or in the future, of minimizing human damage.”

Drawing these two “things” together (CARE’s report and Baldwin’s musings) doesn’t take a considerable amount of effort: the traditions to which Baldwin refers, are part of the very reason that international development has failed. The traditions that dictate the colonial influences over how aid has been invested, coupled with the traditions which set the social and cultural constructs that exist on the side of the recipients of that aid, create a perfect storm of incompatibility.

For sure, there are examples of success, and I have spent time on these pages promoting them.

Unfortunately, these are overshadowed by examples of failure, and worse: examples of repeatedly making the same mistakes over and again.

Signing of The Marshall Plan: from

In 1948, the United States committed to the rehabilitation of Western Europe, kicking off the “Marshall Plan” as an investment to help countries after the War.

Many of the recipient countries of the Marshall Plan – Britain, France, Netherlands, Belgium, West Germany and Norway – had, themselves, previous experience of providing aid to countries years before.

Foreign assistance, as a concept, had been around since the 18th century. However, since that time, the majority of the assistance given was from countries such as Britain and France, and predominantly to their respective colonies.

To recap, hastily, on how development has evolved since 1948, organisations (such as CARE International) have invested significant time and energy trying to understand how to most appropriately and effectively assist those “living in poverty”.

Those last three words are in speech marks, because defining who beneficiaries actually are has, itself, been a 75-year exercise.

The World Bank annually grade country demographics and, historically, many aid organisations and government donors use this guidance to allocate funds. Which is why more recently South American countries and now South East Asian ones, are receiving less “aid” due to how they have slowly climbed the World Bank rankings, moving from “low income” to “medium income” economies.

Using economic indicators such as these, some development agencies have prioritised the “extreme poor” as a target group for receiving aid.

Whilst others have nuanced their criteria for “poverty” and zoomed in on defining groups of people based on how “vulnerable” or “marginalised” they might be, which then takes into account criteria beyond income.

Over time, and as the international development industry has expanded, more types of people in need are included, in some way, by some organisation, or movement.

In any case, whilst they have been undertaking their deep dive analyses, and designing their ever-complex programmes, these organisations have encountered a slew of cultural and social normative behaviours (again, Baldwin’s ‘traditions’ – to which each community they are assisting is bound and, from which each community is so heavily defined.

For CARE, the gendered aspects of such cultural traditions – whereby men typically dominate decision making and hold the majority of power over women (at home, in the workplace, and in public spaces) – has become the lynchpin around which all of CARE’s efforts have been inspired.

For others, UNICEF or Plan International, for example, their research and development has anchored itself to the challenges that children or young people, respectively, face in society.

As many commentators have cited, the evolution of “aid” over the last 200 years has charted a meandering course, undergoing regular modifications.

Take the topic of financing, for example.

Many nations, and large development organisations, have explored what might be the most efficient financial instruments they can deploy: Government-to-Government loans; microfinance programmes; economic stimulus packages; public-private funded initiatives, designed to strengthen economies and improve societal issues.

Each of these examples, come with their own success stories however, without exception, each encountered this same obstacle of tradition on both sides of the equation: the traditional norms set by those investing funds and resources into development, and the traditional norms played out by those receiving the financial “help”.

Given these constraints, it is simply not clear, even today, what types of interventions are best and how these should be delivered.

Is it more appropriate, for example, to stimulate economic growth for a country or, instead, better to understand upfront what is needed by those in that country who are struggling financially and who are excluded from formal systems (ie they lack access to bank accounts, internet, markets, education, etc) and to design an intervention that addresses that need?

Both of these approaches have been tried and tested and, in some cases, combined. However, again, traditional norms create obstacles along the way.

For example, direct budgetary support (a financial transaction between Governments) was, for a while, a popular choice of many richer nations to financially support poorer ones. Yet, this type of support could be all too often undermined by recipient Governments not properly distributing the funds through public services. Instead, many would funnel disproportionate amounts into other areas, such as to the bank accounts of Government officials.

And, when it comes to implementing the second approach (ie answering the “needs” question) this, too, can be compromised by the nature of who makes decisions in society, writ large.

Not exclusively, but typically, all such development-based transactions, and development-based relationships in the past were led by men.

The result of which is that less consideration, over seven decades of international development, has categorically been attributed to those societal issues that would have been selected by women. Women simply haven’t had the opportunity to have an equal voice in conversations about international development in that time. Not in the initial orchestration of The Marshall Plan, nor in the decisions with, and within, communities in terms of where and how the resources should be utilised.

It was CARE who established the first ever Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA) in Niger in 1991, a mechanism for women to save and loan money with one another.

This, in turn, inspired the scale up of VSLA platforms around the world, adopted by other organisations too, encouraging women to have a voice inside of communities, and ultimately enabling women to speak out and influence local structures and systems.

VSLAs are one example of how this acutely gendered dynamic and imbalance is shifting. Unfortunately, the pace of change is slow.

Take the issue of unpaid care. This remains a pertinent topic even in the most “progressive” of societies. In the world of business, equal pay and worker benefits are also not yet level for all employees. For many nations, their politicians and leaders have been, and in many cases remain to be, male dominated. As of 2021, only 1 in 5 ministerial positions globally were held by women and, even today, just 17 countries have a woman Head of State, and 19 countries have a woman Head of Government.

These stark ratios are reflected, too, at the local level of the majority of countries – in the political and public spaces of local authorities and community leaders, in small to medium enterprises and local businesses. The patterns are similar, the outcomes the same.

And, whilst today’s inter-connected world has increasingly called out these gender imbalances, in a way that simply wasn’t viable even 20 years ago, Baldwin’s intuition when he writes “They do not know how they will live without those traditions that have given them their identity” rings true.

Just as traditional norms hold back gender equality, so too do they stifle advancements made around other forms of inequality.

More than ever, we have been made aware of the economic inequalities of the world – the “1%” phenomenon.

Every country maintains its own version of this and, globally, it would seem that the ratios of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ become ever more extreme with each annual set of data released.

According to last year’s World Inequality Report, “Global wealth inequalities are even more pronounced than income inequalities. The poorest half of the global population barely owns any wealth at all, possessing just 2% of the total. In contrast, the richest 10% of the global population own 76% of all wealth.”

Armed with such data, it is hard not to side with those campaigning for change. Be that from an accountability perspective, lobbying for more responsible policies and practices adopted by business and by government institutions. Or be it from a more ethical perspective, targeting individual behaviours.

Both make sense, yet both have their limitations when it comes to just how much ground individuals, corporations, or governments, are prepared to concede at their own expense.


With power comes responsibility, and all too often that responsibility lies in the shadow of a tradition that is extremely hard to change.

Whether you set your sights on tackling inequality, poverty, vulnerability, marginalisation, gender equity, disability, child rights, or other such societal issues, I would argue that Baldwin’s plea for a “higher level of consciousness” remains, simultaneously, a sobering as well as a viable salvation, when redressing some sort of balance in the world.

Although I was tempted to end this post conceding that Baldwin’s call to action might never be fulfilled, instead I would suggest that the subject of ‘consciousness’ gains more traction with each generation.

What if we kept a higher level of consciousness close to heart, and nurtured that sense of what it can mean each day? What if we tried to imbue Baldwin’s words and sentiment into as many interactions, thoughts, exchanges and relationships that we could accommodate?

Do this, and perhaps there may yet come a time where our connectivity with one another sets in train a new sense of what tradition is, what it stands for, and what new outcomes it might reveal.

One born every two seconds

Dawn in Patna

Her first four children each died of asphyxiation during delivery. The 30 year old’s fifth – a baby girl – was born safely at home, and against all odds. However, when the same expectant mother entered Bihar’s district hospital last Friday, to deliver her sixth baby, she was praying for a boy. She entered the hospital carrying the hopes and dreams of the many family members waiting outside for the news and, as I bore witness to, her prayers were answered.

Through CARE International’s influence within the health sector of Bihar (one of India’s most populated states with 110 million citizens) this mother had been encouraged to deliver her sixth baby in hospital, rather than at home. A decision which instantly improved her and her baby’s chance of survival.

I was visiting the hospital with the local CARE team at the time, to learn more about how CARE is helping transform the state’s healthcare system, and improve the quality of the services available.
Continue reading “One born every two seconds”

Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling

Children reading Lafaek Community Magazine. Photo Credit Sarah Rippin/CARE

I’ve been working in Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste (East Timor) this week, and it’s been a privilege as always to spend time in new surrounds. More so when stationed one hundred metres from the sea, with spectacular daily sunsets, and some of the tastiest coffee money can buy. 

Timor is an island, just a short hop north of Darwin, Australia, and up until quite recently, following 500 years of Portuguese occupation, was an Indonesian colony (between 1975 and 1999). The western side of the island is still governed by Indonesia. Timor-Leste claimed its independence in 2002.

Like so many other countries in 2016, Timor-Leste is experiencing the effects of the current El Nino droughts, disrupting the country’s wet season and ruining harvesting potential. A topic covered on this site back in March during my time in Ethiopia.

My assignment this week, however, has been to support CARE’s work to engage more with private sector companies in Timor-Leste (banks, retail, media and others) and examine ways in which, together, initiatives and relationships can be forged to tackle some of the social and economic challenges the country faces – poor infrastructure, lack of employment opportunities, issues around food security and nutrition, financial literacy, to name a few. Even without a more severe El Nino year, Timor-Leste is dealing with all of these mini crises combined.     Continue reading “Making change happen: Collaboration, and the power of Storytelling”

Resilient Markets in Ethiopia

At home with Sindayo, a GRAD beneficiary in Tigray. Photo credit @ CARE Ethiopia.

Last month I visited Tigray, Northern Ethiopia, to interview farmers and livestock traders faced with the drought effects of one of the most devastating El Niños in 50 years, to learn about their coping strategies in the face of extreme weather patterns.

We wanted to find out how these coping strategies were linked to national and international market systems and how, through these systems, it might be possible to bring about a better deal for those in the supply chain typically made more vulnerable by drought: women.

CARE International, the global NGO and my employer for the last decade, has been operating in Ethiopia since 1984, and works alongside other international and national organisations to bring solutions to those whose livelihoods are invested in agriculture, and who by default are affected by regular market “shocks”.

After 70 years of operations around the world, CARE’s focus within any country programme is to bring about positive changes for women and girls. We do this because of the myriad of existing social and economic injustices faced by women and girls, all over the world, many of which have been described on this blog. At CARE, we talk a lot about “empowering” women and girls, and this encompasses many aspects, including improving access to economic resources for women and, crucially, increasing their control over those resources.       Continue reading “Resilient Markets in Ethiopia”

Women’s Empowerment in the Hospitality and Tourism sector

Drawing in the tourists – a Sri Lankan sunset over the Indian Ocean

I have visited Sri Lanka in a work capacity every year for the past five – posting about it just recently on this site – however, this April, I’ll spend my 40th birthday there, as a tourist, on the country’s southern coast.

Post war Sri Lanka (since 2009) has much to offer the increasing number of tourists, flocking to experience white sand beaches, up-country tea plantations, and the joy of some spicy coconut sambol for breakfast.

The hospitality and tourism sector is one upon which Sri Lanka is heavily relying, not only in terms of driving up economic gains for the country, but also in making a positive ripple effect on related social factors – in particular, supporting the employment needs of what equates to several million young Sri Lankans on the look out to secure a job.

Within this context, as well as having the potential to positively tackle youth unemployment in the country, the hospitality and tourism sector is in a position to also address why it is that so many women in the sector are not being supported in their careers – and in some cases, why in the very first instance it is a challenge for women to even enter the workforce. Continue reading “Women’s Empowerment in the Hospitality and Tourism sector”

What can CARE do for business?

The ‘interwoven’ nature of CARE’s approach to development

Last week I was in Islamabad, supporting the efforts of the CARE International team there, who have led a very successful set of engagements with the private sector to address social issues in Pakistan. In a country beset by a number of political and social tensions, CARE have decided to flip the traditional paradigm of not seeing what companies “can do for us” but, instead, what “CARE can do for business”. A bold move, and one which is so far paying dividends. 

Whilst you can still find ardent members of the international climbing fraternity hacking their way precariously through road blocks and using unofficial routes, to climb some of the country’s spectacular mountain ranges, it is common enough knowledge now that Pakistan’s tourism industry is far from booming. Continue reading “What can CARE do for business?”