Note to social entrepreneurs: change requires politics

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.

Thus, this excellent NYT article, “Real Change Requires Politics,” by really stuck a chord with me:

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.

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12 Responses to Note to social entrepreneurs: change requires politics

  1. Totally agree good politics is far too effective and impactful

  2. Gia Ghani says:

    so true about the ‘sparks’ that fly when you nurture and cultivate your own idea. There is something so fulfilling that comes with working on something from the ground up and seeing it succeed. 

    I’m also with you on the relationship between NGO’s and politics. It is a long road to building meaningful social change but each does depend on the help of the other. Which, more often then not, is so frustrating.

    • Akhila says:

      Exactly — I think social enterprise really draws a lot of people because of how exciting the process can be. But we also need to keep in mind that ultimately, we do have to impact policy & politics if we want to bring lasting change.

  3. Rachel says:

    Hi Akhila, 

    You might not know me personally, but I’m Rachel – a coming-to-3rd-year undergrad at LSE and now co-MD of The Student Initiative! I know you by name as it was on the Board of Directors formerly, but only got to know/work closely with Ines, Leo and Sayan when I came on board the management team. I was reading up different blogs related to development in order to conceptualize our development forum which we are organizing at the end of the year. Naturally I came to all the related links TSI had to offer and obviously, your blog. =) 

    I did find that article very thought-provoking and actually very worthy of debate: considering putting it down as a panel discussion question now.. 

    Hope to keep in touch!

    Best,
    Rachel

    • Akhila says:

      Rachel, it’s so good to hear from you! I deeply enjoyed my time with TSI and am so thankful I got to be part of that team. It was truly exciting and exhilarating and I learned so much through the process. Who knows if I will return to social enterprise– but I know that even if I do, I realize the importance of engaging in politics and policy at the same time.

      Glad you enjoyed this and definitely keep in touch. I would love to be more involved with TSI or at least, hear about what is going on now.

  4. Roger Hamilton says:

    Learning the depths of Social Entrepreneurship has
    made me realize many things in my own life. I have been
    taking the wrong approach towards life which took me towards
    the path I never wanted to take in the first place. Beginning
    with the crystal clear clarity about my goals and taking every
    one I know into consideration is the next step I intend to take
    very seriously. 

    http://www.xl-movies.com

  5. Roger Hamilton says:

    The reality of good. At the end of one’s life,
    is not measured by how much money you made, but
    by how much you have made the world a better place.
    Successful entrepreneurs often the real impact of the
    non-profit and social enterprise switch.You know very
    well about social entrepreneurship,
    Who reads your website well.

    http://www.xlstore.org

  6. Durka K says:

    Thanks Akhila, this was a very insightful post!

  7. Gabrielle says:

    Hi Akhila,

    You don’t know me; I just stumbled upon this blog post through a series of links, I think. But I’m really curious about what specific actions we can take to influence politics and government. I agree with you completely that there is a huge need to do so, but sometimes I feel at a loss as to where to start.

    I actually studied international social welfare and public policy, but ended up working in social enterprise development right after school (and am now working as a consultant for nonprofits). I love start-up life and the ideas of microfinance and social businesses…but how does one go from that and [back] to policy impacting?

    Research and writing? How would I go about impacting the policies of a government in a country I’m not from? Would love to hear your thoughts!

    • Akhila says:

       Thank you so much for reading Gabrielle, and for this comment. I wholeheartedly agree with you in that there are often too many criticisms but not enough solutions. And I will readily admit that I don’t know all the solutions, though I am constantly trying to learn and expand my knowledge.

      Obviously within the US as American citizens there are ways we can use our influence as citizens to mobilize, advocate, organize and lobby to try and change policies as well on a broader scale.

      Things certainly get trickier when you’re talking about social issues in another developing country, where you are not a citizen. There, I don’t know the solution but my instinct is that you can still do a lot of the same things – mobilizing, organizing and lobbying – by empowering local leaders to do these things and helping them to raise their voice and lobby directly to the government. There are ways to push for policy reform through grassroots and local groups, local activists and community organizers, and policy/advocacy organizations like think tanks, etc. I think ultimately you have to work with citizens of that country, particularly those ultimately affected by policies, to try and advocate to change those policies!

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