Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
"[There was] this assumption that those who were trained were not trained to be part of the community, but to be leaders of the community. This carried with it another false assumption that being a leader meant you were separate and apart from the masses, and to a large extent people were to look up to you, and that your responsibility to the people was to represent them. This means that people were never given a sense of their own values.
- Ella Baker, 1969
In 1980, Bill Drayton founded an organization called Ashoka
. Its efforts to support "pattern changing" ideas have had a profound effect on the social sector over the last 25 years. Indeed, Drayton and his colleagues' use of the term "social entrepreneur" has truly remade the sector in a number of ways - some for the good, and some for the not-so-good. On some level, their adaptation of a "business" word - entrepreneur - to the social sector has encouraged many nonprofit organizations to develop a stronger sense of financial discipline, a clearer focus on exactly what changes they are trying to make in the world, and a deeper willingness to invest in their own management infrastructure. And that's good. Because it's made them better at pursuing their missions.
On the other hand, an "entrepreneur" is an individual. An individual who invents new things. And the use of the term has encouraged a certain cultishness in the social sector around people who start and run their own organizations - just think of Wendy Kopp
, Alan Khazei
and Paul Farmer
. The benefits of the term social entrepreneur have come at the expense of two important things: first, no change ever happened because of one individual. Change is the result of the efforts of many, and the focus on individuals robs social change of much of its complexity. Second, the newest thing isn't always the best thing. In fact, many social sector organizations have been plugging away at tough problems for many years and doing quite a good job of it. This emphasis on entrepreneurship - on striking out on your own - ignores the good work that is already happening.
Finally, and perhaps most problematically, social entrepreneurship runs afoul of Ms. Baker's admonition: focusing on leadership by entrepreneurs removes those individuals and their causes from the community. "The community" becomes the vehicle for the change being pushed by the leader and loses its agency, its set of individual identities made up by individual, complex people. As Ms. Baker says, having "leaders" can rob people of their own values.
In the last several yeas, things have started to change at Ashoka. In particular, their Full Economic Citizenship Initiative
has helped them get beyond the singular obsession with social entrepreneurs. The FEC initiative is not about "individuals" fighting "pattern changing" fights; rather it is about connecting organizations to empower everyone.
Currently, several billion people are not part of the world economy. Ashoka's FEC initiative aims to enable these low-income citizens to purchase essential goods and services. It does so by fostering commercial partnerships between businesses and social sector organizations.
From an economic point of view, it works like this: Ashoka works with community-based groups to aggregate demand for products. For example, a subsistence farmer who owns a three hectare plot in rural Mexico is never going to have the financial means to purchase an irrigation system for his farm. But, if that guy and twenty of his neighbors can get together to buy a system that will cover their total land area, then maybe we're talking. Especially if they are able to use their collective land as collateral to borrow against. That's what aggregating demand is about, and that's the first part of Ashoka's job.
The next part requires Ashoka to broker agreements between those community groups and businesses selling products that will be useful to the community groups. Again, the real life example of an irrigation company in Mexico called Amanco will help make things a bit more tangible here. That company will never sell its product to a single, three-hectare farmer. It probably won't sell to a group of poor farmers either. But if Ashoka can legitimize and back up the collective assets of the farmers, once again maybe we're talking.
But it's not just about installing irrigation systems. It's about making sure they work. If the community based organization can provide ongoing maintenance and support for the irrigation system - all the while charging the irrigation company for that service - now we're really talking. On both ends.
Finally, you have to have something to do once the irrigation system is up and running. Who cares if this new system helps the farmers grow a thousand mangoes where he used to grow a hundred if there is no one to sell them to? The last piece of this is that Ashoka helps connect the farmers (or the community group representing the farmers) with distribution channels to sell their goods. Right now, Ashoka has developed a pilot agreement to enable rural Mexican farmers to sell their mangoes through Wal*Mart's Mexican affiliate. Certainly the terms Wal*Mart and "economic empowerment of producers" don't often go hand in hand, but the partnership is still young and temporary. Part of Ashoka's role is to figure out how well the sales aspect works for the farmers.
This whole thing about helping extremely poor people access goods and buy things sounds kind of like Prahalad's Bottom of the Pyramid. But the economics are fundamentally different. What Prahalad is talking about is changing the goods and services so that extremely poor people can afford them. Ashoka's FEC work is about empowering groups of extremely poor people to access the financial mechanisms of the larger regional, national and global economies. In some ways it's not about changing the system; it's about changing access. And maybe that's good, and maybe it's bad.
Either way, it's not just the economics that are relevant. There's more to it. Ultimately the FEC initiative is about changing the way people think. It is about showing people that they can invest in their farm and get something back. Which sort of brings us full circle. We started by talking about this notion of a pattern shift, and we contrasted the pattern shift of "social entrepreneurs" against the observation of civil rights activist Ella Baker. To her, the problem of "leadership" is that is separates people from the community and it devalues the community itself. Ashoka's own pattern shift - its investment in full economic citizenship for all and decreased focus on the entrepreneurial individual - would resonate well with Ms. Baker's words.