Take Three Pounds of Poverty

BY DAWN TAN
Jul 26, 2011

Philanthrocapitalism. Impact investing. Creative Capitalism. Call it what you will, social entrepreneurship is the new buzz phrase on the economic landscape that is turning water into wine, pig’s ears into silk purses and, yes, it promises to feed the multitudes. 

Take three pounds of poverty, a dose of population explosion, a generous helping of social inequality, a dollop of bad governance, and a scattering of marginalised communities; bake on low proactive change for a few decades and, voila, you have the perfect conditions for an economic phenomenon that is gaining worldwide ground and many inches of column space – the rise of social entrepreneurship. If you’re thinking monetary handouts, giveaways and bleeding heart social welfare programmes, you’ve come to the wrong place.

In the last 20 years, global social entrepreneurs who, if you’ll forgive the pun, mean business, have sprouted in sectors as diverse as rickshaw operations in India to new information technologies for farmers in Africa, drug rehabilitation for former addicts in North America to employment opportunities for women in BrazilX.

Even so-called anti-poverty strategies like microfinance firms for small borrowers are still trying to get in on the act despite the sector teetering precariously on the back of questionable and exploitative lending practices which have led to mass bankruptcies and even suicide.

Amid this maelstrom of interest, the ongoing changes social entrepreneurship has produced are undeniable. Much like those ubiquitous problem-solvers called plumbers, social entrepreneurs work tirelessly to get things which are messily stuck unstuck.  And they do it not by tinkering with the existing plumbing works, but making a system overhaul. The tools such social entrepreneurs need are formidable and not unlike those required by any ordinary profit-oriented, business-minded individual. Guts for a start, great ideas, vision and determination.

these people come up with brilliant ideas and against all the odds succeed at creating new products and services that dramatically improve people’s lives.

People are attracted to social entrepreneurs like Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus for many of the same reasons that they find business entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs so compelling – these people come up with brilliant ideas and against all the odds succeed at creating new products and services that dramatically improve people’s lives. Take Goonj in India, for example, whose initiatives include making creative use of waste material as a resource.

Conceptualized by Anshu Gupta, Goonj has won praise for its innovative use of cloth as a resource for rural villages. It serves as a conduit for the recycling of thousands of kilos of material annually to make affordable, hygienic sanitary towels for India’s rural poor. Many of the women in the communities Goonj helps had hitherto used rags during menses which led to all manner of potentially fatal pelvic diseases. Its objectives for what is a taboo subject could not seem simpler and Goonj’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. Forbes listed the company in 2010 as one of the most powerful rural entrepreneurs in India in terms of its ability to radically change lives.

1065 Judy Frater is also the author of "Threads of Identity: Embroidery and Adornment of the Nomadic Rabaris" published in 1995. (Photo by Todd Wilkinson)

In Kutch, Gujarat, Fulbright scholar Judy Frater, who heads Kala Raksha, a social enterprise dedicated to the preservation of traditional arts in the region, has been trying to raise the profile of local artisans above the level of simple craftsmen to that of skilled designers, artists in their own right who ought to be rewarded for their unique creations rather than lumped together as faceless seamstresses or embroidery workers.  

“The challenge is to inspire the artisans to be empowered by their own efforts, to create unique styles in their work which are peculiar to them so they can start, grow and maintain businesses of their own which are commercially viable,” says Frater.

It seems empowerment of the individual is what social entrepreneurship is all about. But no matter what cause they support, for social entrepreneurship to work, it must not only be profitable but, more fundamentally, it must be ready to reach deep to effect under-represented communities at a holistic level.

Without doubt one of the forerunners in the field of social entrepreneurship is the Ashoka Foundation, founded in 1993 by Bill Drayton, which supports the work of individuals they call “Fellows” by providing them with living stipends and professional support as they pursue their dreams.

Ashoka takes the selection of these Fellows seriously. As Chris Cusano, director of Ashoka’s entrepreneur to entrepreneur programme in Asia, says: “Ashoka supports social entrepreneurs who it believes can make a systemic change at the national level. In selecting Fellows, we often have to turn down good people doing good work because their vision was only at the community or local level. We are always looking for entrepreneurs whose vision for their own impact goes beyond a finite set of beneficiaries – such as students in one school, and reaches to the whole society – such as all students in all schools. That's what makes Ashoka Fellows unique.”

David Bornstein, author of “How to Change the World”, puts it this way:  “Social entrepreneurs identify resources where people only see problems. They view the villagers as the solution, not the passive beneficiary.”

But the field of social entrepreneurship is not entirely without controversy and a battle is raging between profit and philanthropy. As far as regulation of social entrepreneurships is concerned, it’s arguably a little “wild west”, with few agreeing on a single definition, let alone a unified or accepted orthodoxy. While many commercial ventures would consider themselves to have social objectives, few satisfy the widespread ideal of being principally about the social aim.

So why the hullaballoo about definitions? Social enterprises are meant to differ from conventional business in that they do not aim to offer any benefit to their investors, except where they believe that doing so will ultimately further their capacity to realise their philanthropic goals. Now that’s a lot of faith right there.

For all the good that it has certainly done, the parameters for social entrepreneurship are uncomfortably blurry for some, with concerns swirling around the seemingly jarring conjoining of the words “social” with “entrepreneurship”. How charitable is it if it’s also a money-making venture? They warn that the word “entrepreneurship” is a mixed blessing. Is it simply the force for economic change against the backdrop of alertness to an opportunity, or is it creative capitalism; see early exploitation? And can it fix the root causes of fundamental social problems and deliver systemic changes, or is it simply addressing pre-existent symptoms?