As an undergraduate studying abroad at LSE, I had my first introduction to microfinance and became enamored with social enterprise. I co-founded a student development think tank that focused on providing student consulting services to microfinance institutions (MFIs) including research, development, and marketing. We pitched it as a social enterprise in a business plan competition and managed to win 2nd place. I can’t tell you how much I loved it: the late nights working on our project, the heated discussions about our structure, the “we’re all in it together” team atmosphere, the constant excitement of doing something meaningful, new, and different. I really, really loved it.
Today, though, I’ve strayed far from the path of social entrepreneurship, though part of my heart still remains in that sector. Perhaps I’ll return someday, because there is no denying the sparks that fly when you fall in love with a start-up and a team and a vision. There’s really nothing like the drive of developing and marketing your big, grand, idea. I think it is some of the most fulfilling work you can find, and no wonder this field is drawing so many bright young minds.
So, I may go back someday. But whatever I do, I’ve realized that real change will also involve politics and policymaking. Social enterprises and businesses can improve the way businesses are run, can address problems with the free market, and can pioneer a double- and triple-bottom line for their companies. But, often times this does not address the underlying structural problems of poverty: government services and inefficiencies. To attack some of these root causes, we need to engage in politics.
What earnest social enterprise can sometimes ignore is power, predation and good old-fashioned politics.
Social entrepreneurs see problems much as economists see them: as simple inefficiencies. Sometimes, indeed, inefficiency alone is involved — for example, mushroom growers not having access to discarded coffee grounds. But in many other situations, the problem is politics, which is to say the clashing interests of people.
Many social entrepreneurs treat power as something to work around.They can be clearer in articulating what they are for than in stating what they oppose, and why.They often take the holes of the system as a given and do their best to plug the leaks.
When I put that notion to Rebecca Onie, the chief executive of Health Leads, a social enterprise that trains college students to operate as social workers in U.S.clinics and hospitals, she pushed back and offered an explanation: Ideally, the government would fund the kind of social work she provides.It does not.Rather than fight the government, her group is making the “business case” for the usefulness of social workers, by demonstrating what works and collecting data on it.
Likewise, in poorer countries like India, social entrepreneurs address real needs — bringing solar lamps to villages, teaching women to weave shawls and connecting them to big-city markets. But the elites attracted to such projects are often less interested in combating the underlying structural problems. The villages need solar lamps because the government fails to bring electricity. The women must weave from home because their husbands forbid them to leave.
These problems are not inefficiencies in need of smoothing. They are fights in need of picking. But picking fights is rarely the social entrepreneur’s way.
In the United States, social entrepreneurs have flocked to education, which they say is the key to sustaining American competitiveness. But they have tended to work from the outside, building charter schools beyond the public system rather than taking on the hard but unavoidable politics of improving schools while easing thousands of ineffective teachers out.
Um, YES. This article is 1000% spot on. Yes, there are some social enterprises/businesses that simply attack existing market inefficiencies. For example, making eyeglasses cheaper and selling low-cost agricultural tools to small farmers.
But, there are many, many more social enterprises that are in essence providing services that ideally, the government should be providing. Social enterprises that work in the areas of healthcare, education, social services, sanitation, clean water, and often even legal services are trying to address inefficiencies in government programs by replicating them in a more efficient form. But what they really should be doing is engaging with the government, and ultimately working to integrate services with the government rather than creating parallel structures.
When providing services that meet basic human rights, social entrepreneurs need to get their hands dirty with politics. So do non-profiteers who don’t call themselves “social entrepreneurs.” Politics is difficult, slow, drawn out, and inefficient. But we need to change policies and get involved in politics if we’re to address the structural problems leading to poverty, inequality, and violence. The very idea of human rights requires — no, demands — government provided services to protect these rights.
Sure, NGOs and social enterprises sometimes seem like a quicker and easier way to plug the gaps in government services, and more efficiently provide basic human rights to people. But, in the long run, these parallel NGO structures might even serve to weaken the role of the government in protecting rights. Ultimately, I think NGOs and social businesses should not only be providing critical services today, but should also have in mind the ultimate goal of integration with the government, and changes in policy as needed to ensure the basic rights of citizens.
Sorry, social entrepreneurs and non-profits. If we want real, systemic change — we have to get our hands dirty in politics.