Hana Bacaj Gëzim Krasniqi Balkan Insight July 12, 2022 Kosovo’s Pandemic Response Left Women-Led Businesses Struggling This article was originally published on Balkan Insight. The specific experience of women-led businesses in Kosovo in the pandemic shows that when governments design crisis aid packages, they must take gender issues into account. The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have posed a myriad of challenges to businesses, but these challenges have been different depending on the sectors and owners of the businesses. Evidence suggests that in Kosovo the pandemic had a greater impact on women-led businesses since women are under-represented as entrepreneurs in Kosovo and so tend to operate smaller businesses, concentrated in sectors that were hit hardest during the pandemic. Based on interviews with Kosovo women entrepreneurs, the five key challenges faced during the pandemic included a fall in customer purchases, the need to remodel the business, the threat to existence, and decreased business size. If that was not enough, many women entrepreneurs also experienced increased childcare responsibilities, making it harder for them to navigate the challenges of steering a business in turbulent times. Many women entrepreneurs in Kosovo who are also mothers have revealed their experiences during the pandemic concerning the continuation, discontinuation, or closure of their businesses in feedback. It was often devastating. Most women were highly stressed, citing falling sales, limited mobility, lack of income alternatives, and no safety nets. One owner put it: “I am always thinking about giving my child the right attention, running my business, the pandemic – and whether I am doing enough.” The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 measures on businesses left many owners struggling and without answers to pressing issues. The crisis prompted a government response – but often this was too late, inadequate or short sighted. It is essential to understand whether the Kosovo government integrated gender considerations and experiences into broader policymaking and recovery strategies. Challenges facing women in business were overlooked Kosovo institutions adopted various policy measures in response to COVID-19, focusing on social wellbeing, business support, and grant supervision. In March 2020, the government adopted an Emergency Fiscal Package to support the private sector, including businesses managed by women and self-employed women. Another support from the government was the Economic Recovery Program, a broad set of measures aimed at supporting, among other things, business development and combating inequality. Specifically, a “window” was created dedicated to women in business under the Law on Economic Recovery and the Kosovo Credit Guarantee Fund, KCGF. Kosovo’s government also allocated 2 million euros to the Agency for Gender Equality, AGE, to support women. Many women in business welcomed the measures; nevertheless, there have been concerns that in designing the COVID-recovery measures, many of the challenges that women in business face were overlooked. In general, women entrepreneurs were dissatisfied with the operationalization of these packages, citing a lack of information, and a time lag in the disbursement of money. This meant that some had to meanwhile lay off staff and close down branches until they actually received that minimal support. Women entrepreneurs in Kosovo say they needed more financial assistance, lower taxes, more business advice, greater awareness, and mobilization from the institutional level. One said: “A lot of people who had no idea how to run a business during a pandemic and needed support and guidance to continue the work so they could provide for themselves and their families.” Politically unstable Kosovo was unprepared when the pandemic struck. The government proved unable to create a well-thought-out strategy and implementation plan that took into consideration all the relevant factors when designing its measures. Considerable shortcomings emerged due to the misreading of the situation and of the specific problems that women-led businesses faced. Importantly, since most institutions in Kosovo do not have gender-disaggregated data, it was difficult for it to create policies that took the gender factor into consideration. In the design of fiscal packages during the pandemic, little to no consideration was given to gender factors. There are no written explanations or knowledge from many stakeholders/institutions about whether the design of measures included the gender factor. Moreover, since women’s needs as business owners were not explicitly targeted, the measures might have even reinforced gender inequalities, threatening to undo any progress made in closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship. As noticed, the trajectory of doing business has changed since the start of pandemic. Therefore, women entrepreneurs must think differently and be ready to do “business as unusual” to help cope with economic stresses. As such, the answer to the daunting business question is not to exit but exist; this means searching for alternative ways to provide customers with goods and services. In fact, many women entrepreneurs in Kosovo took this step, focusing on new models and trying to keep their doors open. In particular, the pandemic opened a new door for women entrepreneurs in terms of technological opportunities to scale up their businesses. Although they were forced to somehow shift their business operations towards digitalization and use digital platforms, it was not feasible for most of them to make any big investments, given the lack of support from the local and national levels in shifting to digital operations. Looking at some of the many viewpoints of women in business, it is noticeable that women entrepreneurs had different experiences compared to men, and that women-led businesses often cannot adjust as fast as men in business when conditions change. Therefore, government policies, whether short-term or long-term, must in future be designed with gender considered as an important factor. Only by including gender as an indispensable criterion in policy planning will governments be able to build effective support frameworks and comprehensive and sustainable strategies for economic recovery and growth in response to shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic. Targeted measures that address all citizens’ concerns will be an essential step in helping to restore economic growth.