Building a Culture of Sustainable Development in Bahrain

by Nina Curley, December 4, 2012

In a deceptively gentle British cadence, Leena Al Olaimy firmly gets right to the point when it comes to sustainable development in Bahrain. “Nothing is silo-ed in the real world. But when organizations don’t talk to each other, you see a splintering of efforts and resources. As the least resource-endowed of the Gulf countries, resource optimization is crucial for our social, economic and environmental sustainability.”

As we drive around Manama on a sunny day, a city that has seen its share of political turmoil over the past year, Bahrain’s native entrepreneurial spirit is evident in small shops scattered all over the city. Starting your own business is hardly a foreign concept for Bahraini youth, which has had a culture of entrepreneurship since the days of its pearl divers, some will tell you, but many youth today simply want to start something small and don’t have the urge to innovate or scale, says Al Olaimy. 

On a broader scale, Al Olaimy sees a similar disconnect, as organizations work to patch social issues with quick fixes rather than dealing with root causes. One organization, she recalls, was raising money to feed local families. “I asked, have you considered giving them produce to grow instead, to generate ongoing income?”

Another non-profit hosted a fundraiser for children with Down syndrome, but didn’t include them in the event. “The organizers said that it would be too depressing,” she says, squinting at their choice to feed social stigma. It’s clear that Al Olaimy is unafraid of politely exploding social stereotype.

Encouraging a long-term vision across the board in her native environment is exactly what brought her back to Bahrain to co-found 3BL (“Triple Bottom Line”) Associates, a social impact and sustainability consultancy, after completing an MA at Dartmouth and studying at Harvard Business School. 

“I was guilty of practicing more 'traditional' forms of donation-centric CSR [corporate social responsibility] in the early 2000s,” she admits. But after discovering social enterprise at Dartmouth and studying microfinance guru Muhammad Yunus, she never looked back. 

“The challenge is getting the private sector to see sustainability as an opportunity that can generate revenue while mitigating risk, rather than a nonstrategic marketing tool,” she explains.

When she and her brother Tariq, who studied at the Cass Business School and worked for a local social enterprise in London, returned to Bahrain in 2009, “there wasn’t an outlet for the kind of work we wanted to do—which some of our clients now affectionately refer to as professional idealism” she recalls. NGOs were “too traditional” in their approach, and government and international bodies were riddled with bureaucracy – “we had no choice but to create a hybrid organization.”

Expanding a Holistic Vision

Today, 3BL is forging a new path for businesses in Bahrain, helping them to have more social impact through multistakeholder development. “If we are working on a CSR issue for a company, on, say, affordable housing, we would hope to leverage the Ministry of Housing, local municipalities, enterprise support organizations like Tamkeen, and local NGOs,” says Al Olaimy. It may sound simple, but all too often the biggest issue, she explains, is simply that different relevant departments within NGOs, governments, international organizations, and the private sector, simply don’t coordinate and collaborate.

To secure steady work, Al Olaimy and her brother have had to slowly educate the market. In the beginning, it was tough, she admits. “I had to ask myself, am I going to be able to have a salary next month?” She survived by living with her family and adopting a very lean lifestyle- “at least petrol is cheap,” she says, quickly adding that she doesn’t support the heavy petroleum industry subsidies that detract from renewable energy R&D in the region.

Yet as they demonstrate the financial benefits of their approach, along with the social and environmental upside, work is steadily increasing. They are also working on advocacy on the side. “We’re still learning as we go,” says Al Olaimy. “We don’t really have anyone to model ourselves after or benchmark ourselves by. A lot of our efforts are also to raise awareness of what we do and why it’s important.”

One benchmark Al Olaimy does look to, however, is her grandfather, who started an ad agency in the 70s. “At that time in Bahrain, people looked at advertising as a company need, but didn’t understand the need for PR. Today, most companies have a PR agency. I try to remind myself of that. But hopefully it won’t take 40 years,” she says brightly.

In fact, earlier this year, she recalls, at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University (where 3BL was the first Bahraini organization to be invited), "someone said 'To be a social entrepreneur, you have to be misunderstood for 10 years.'" 

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Nina [nine-uh] is the Editor-in-Chief at Wamda. You can reach her through Wamda, on Twitter @9aa, on Facebook, Google+ or at nina [AT] wamda.com.