Tackling COVID-19 in a war zone: An Interview with Dr. Nadia Al-Sakkaf

This interview is a part of a series highlighting #businessworthy efforts in response to covid-19 and has been edited for length and format. Watch the full interview here: https://www.facebook.com/businessworthy/videos/2825640327548691/

What does Covid-19 look like in a country with no stable government? Until April, Covid-19 was something Yemenis citizens only read about in the news. Other major challenges were already part of their daily life. War and hunger have been their reality since September 2014.

The Former Minister of Information and former Chief Editor of Yemen Times, Dr. Nadia al-Sakkaf has hope for the private sector to rebuild the country and bring a future to the many young Yemenis entrepreneurs. The 2013 Business for Peace Honouree gave us insight as to the current situation, the growth of the business sector, and what anyone — everyone — can do in order to positively change the future of Yemen.

Dr. Nadia al-Sakkaf calling in via Zoom

What is the COVID-19 situation in Yemen?

We knew inevitably that the virus would come, but there is no state authority, so who is going to prepare us? It is left to civil society and the private sector. More than 24 million people — 80% of the population — is in need of humanitarian assistance. There is a lack of infrastructure, sanitation, and access to clean water, making the population vulnerable. There are other diseases which are being spread as well. Until April, Covid-19 was unreal. What was real to them was war and hunger.

We started to teach about social distancing and hand washing. Some of the reactions we received were so sad. “You’re telling me to wash my hands with soap and water. I don’t have access to soap or clean water.” For many young men on the frontline, they would rather die from a bullet than to the suffocation felt from Covid-19. The reality is that the choice is still death. There is a disconnect and a denial of the extent of this.


Can you tell us about the projects you’re working on in response to the pandemic?

I’m a part of several small projects. One is the Women’s Solidarity Network, which partners with Food for Humanity. This organisation is on the ground helping communities get access to clean water.
Then there is also the global advocacy element. We’re trying to amplify women Yemenis voices through op-eds in mainstream media to try and bring a different perspective. I am disappointed in mainstream media. International newspapers are not accepting these pieces because they don’t write about war or famine.


At Business for Peace, we focus on the role of businesses in building up societies. What role do you see for the private sector in helping Yemen through this crisis?

Yemeni business people are the ones providing protective and testing equipment. Their sense of social responsibility is big. Tech-based entrepreneurs held a hackathon in April. There were three ideas that passed onto the next stage: a medical consultation app, low-cost, fast-paced mask production, and recycling plastic for PPE with 3D printing. These great ideas need more support; there’s so much potential.
Yemen is a large country, but it is very fragmented. The de facto authority is the private sector. They’re the ones that will bring the country back, and it is important to acknowledge them as an important stakeholder. They are being ignored but ignoring the private sector in national policy does not make sense. They are involved in the local levels, involved in sanitation, clean water, and renewable energy. The private sector is holding the community together and giving people hope.
The economy will motivate people. Yemenis are getting paid to be involved in the frontline. If they have a proper job, if they have a system around them that is somewhat prosperous, they will think twice before they join any armed conflict. The solution is economic, not political.


Much of your career has been about women’s empowerment. What sort of unique role do women play in navigating this crisis?

Globally, women make up 75% of healthcare workers. Equal pay, promotions, and even just recognition would help. Women are working hard on the frontlines and have been able to mediate more than the official means. Yemeni women deserve recognition for what they do. They are powerful. They are superheroes, despite disadvantages and lack of resources and even the cultural discrimination against them. It’s not right.
Women-led organisations are doing much better than male-led organisations. They are more effective and cut through the nonsense and get things done. They are the ones who are the peace builders.
I cannot express enough how important it is to consider women as a main stakeholder when it comes to discussions. For sustainable and fair peace, women need to be at the table and involved in partnerships.


Finally, many people are talking about the chance to build a new normal. What would you prioritise?

Talk to the real actors on the ground and recognise them, in Yemen and countries in similar conditions. Facilitate the engagement of Yemeni entrepreneurs. We need to think about the economy post-Covid. It doesn’t have to be expensive. You could easily start a project for $1000 and help a community of 200. Just the planting of the seed will quickly spread to others. They will be jealous and will want to replicate the success. We need to motivate and network the right people.


Want to help?
Support the initiatives! A like, retweet, comment, or signing a pledge helps gain global attention. You can support organisations like Food for Humanity or sign the petition for a ceasefire. The Hackathon ideas need expertise, funding, and expanded networks.

Free speech allows room for discussion and perspective. Make sure women’s voices are heard globally in the Yemeni peace process.

Support from abroad “brings life back to us,” as Nadia said.

Alison of Business for Peace talks with Dr. Nadia al-Sakkaf

Lessons in crisis management: insight from South China

Wednesday, 13 May 2020 09:02

This interview is a part of a series highlighting #businessworthy efforts in response to covid-19 and has been edited for length and format. Watch the full interview here: https://www.facebook.com/businessworthy/videos/2880110645413004/

Dr Seyedin at the Business for Peace Summit, 2018. Photo by Johnny Vaet Nordskog

How has the crisis affected your business?

Covid-19 has affected every business. We were shut down from 15 January, and offices reopened by the last week of February. In my organisation, everyone was working from home. We had been working with our member companies for the past fifteen years on a plan in case of an epidemic so that they would be prepared. We were perhaps the least affected companies in China as a result of that.

I remember an article from 2006 written by Keith Bradsher, who at the time was the bureau chief for the New York Times in Hong Kong. In that article, he talked about the possibility of an outbreak in 2006. I discussed with him the possibility of not if an outbreak will happen, but when.

Thanks to that discussion, we did a survey of our companies on how prepared they were and we found out that they were not. We are not as affected by this outbreak because we had a plan. Our preparedness and our willingness to face the problem head-on has helped keep our employees safe. We have worked hard — from home.

You have been doing a lot of work in response to the global pandemic to help those in immediate need. Can you tell us about the initiatives you’ve been doing with the Chamber in this regard?

Our first priority was to raise money. Regardless of the wealth level of a country, there are those that are not caught up and have been left behind. We have raised $38 million USD, which has been distributed to those who need it most in China, Cambodia, and the U.S. We also distributed over one million USD to frontline workers. Business has an obligation to move ahead and not wait for direction. We cannot wait for governments to take action; they have their own priorities. Business has an obligation to fill the void, to continue to secure the supply chain.

One of the many studies we have done this year was in March, and focused on the supply chain. The study raised the alarm that 32% of the 237 companies we surveyed in China were already facing shortage of materials or were already empty. A good portion of these products were to be shipped to Asia, Europe, and the U.S. We need to guarantee that continual movement of supplies.

We are helping people with immediate needs like masks and supplies, and helping to make sure the supply chain is open and operational. Most of our member companies are now fully operational again. There are some that are not, but that is because there are 50,000 expats who have not been able to return to China yet. We are working with several authorities on that to try to find ways to get production back up to the top level.

How have you as a leader responded with regards to your team? What sort of leadership demands have been on you?

We have an excellent team. Everyone here recognises that the problem is everybody’s problem, and no one person can do it alone. No country can do it alone.

What I see is that a lot of people are pointing their finger at the politicians for not being as prepared as they perhaps should have been. Every country in the world is staffed with thousands of professionals whose job is to prepare us. We need to re-examine how to change the process so that the people in charge actually have us prepared.

One of the things that I consider the responsibility of business, is that while we try to overcome the current difficulties, we must look forward to the future. For example my partners and I in Allelon Energy Systems, built a power plant in a poor area of China in 1993. That area developed as a result of having electricity, and they became one of the most well-off areas of China.

We reduced our carbon footprint of the city by recently decommissioning that plant. We took care to make sure that the land was redeveloped and turned it into one of the world’s largest medical instrument development and manufacturing centres. We will be investing in similar projects, and this one will create 35,000 high-skilled jobs. It will house a research development centre, university branches, and all kinds of things that can help solve the current and future problems.

Dr. Seyedin at the Business for Peace Summit, 2017. Photo by Olav Heggø

How do you hope the world changes in the aftermath of this crisis?

There is a fire burning in each and every one of us. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, what country you’re from. None of that matters. That fire is to give our children a better life than the one we have ourselves. Every investment I’ve ever made, I’ve always kept in mind that whoever is touched by my investment, is going to have the ability to give their children a better life than they have. I think that I have achieved that in every one of my investments.

If we go forward with that in mind, then all of the questions of a better environment, global warming, world hunger, all of these things will have been answered, because our focus will have been to create a world where ALL of us can give our children a better life than we had.

If we make that a reality for everyone, we will not worry about wars, hunger, or the environment. Whatever you do, whatever your investment, has to have this in mind.