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Emerging Voices: Zachary D. Kaufman on Social Entrepreneurship

by Guest Blogger for Isobel Coleman
November 30, 2012

Pictures of killed people donated by survivors are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, which depicts the country's 1994 genocide, April 5, 2004 (Radu Sigheti/Courtesy Reuters). Pictures of killed people donated by survivors are installed on a wall inside the Gisozi memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, which depicts the country's 1994 genocide, April 5, 2004 (Radu Sigheti/Courtesy Reuters).

Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Zachary D. Kaufman, an attorney, political scientist, social entrepreneur, adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, and the editor of Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities: Changing Our World. He describes his new book and highlights three lessons for social entrepreneurs.

Although social entrepreneurship is increasingly touted as a vital means to address social and environmental challenges—from education, healthcare, and vocational training to prison reform, poverty alleviation, and the protection of rainforests—significant disagreement remains about when, why, and how social entrepreneurship functions and succeeds. These questions are critical to answer if changemakers are to allocate resources efficiently and confront challenges effectively.

Social entrepreneurship is any innovative venture—whether for-profit, not-for-profit, or some combination—that seeks to benefit society. My new book, Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities: Changing Our World, provides firsthand accounts and reflections about social entrepreneurship from visionaries, practitioners, and theorists. The book aims to clarify and illustrate the concept of social entrepreneurship, particularly as it relates to genocide and other atrocities. In addition, the book examines challenges, obstacles, and opportunities in the field and lends new insight to the phenomenon, history, and methodologies of social entrepreneurship.

As Bill Drayton—the founder and CEO of Ashoka, the premier global association of leading social entrepreneurs—emphasizes in the book’s foreword, social entrepreneurship has crucially helped to restrain and repair the devastation wrought by atrocities. He notes that social entrepreneurs contributed to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal. Such individuals and institutions working on atrocity issues have increasingly gained acknowledgement and praise as social entrepreneurs. For example, the Skoll Foundation presented its 2009 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) to recognize and support ICTJ’s “pioneering integrated, comprehensive, and localized approaches to transitional justice with tools, expertise and comparative knowledge necessary to help countries heal.”

Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities features case studies profiling some of the most innovative and impactful social enterprises, including Americans for Informed Democracy, Asylum Access, Children of Abraham, Generation Rwanda, Indego Africa, the Kigali Public Library, the National Vision for Sierra Leone, and Orphans Against AIDS. While these organizations focus on atrocities, their experiences yield lessons for those seeking to tackle a broad range of social, economic, legal, and political problems. Three such lessons stand out:

  • Engage and empower locals

Successful social enterprises are thoughtful, inclusive, and deliberate about their interventions, emphasizing the importance of listening to and learning from locals. Since an indigenous community knows its particular needs and preferences best and is typically the primary beneficiary of a social enterprise’s work, it is both necessary and useful to involve the local population in all aspects of a social enterprise, including its inception and operation.

Examples of this practice abound in the book. Generation Rwanda and Indego Africa employ Rwandans as their country directors and in other staff positions, and a majority of Kigali Public Library campaign participants are also Rwandans. Generation Rwanda and Orphans Against AIDS have solicited input from locals about how the ventures could more successfully help combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. Indego Africa relies upon local staff to advise on the sensitive social and economic contexts in which their artisan partners operate. Asylum Access draws advocates from within the refugee community itself and Orphans Against AIDS mandates its local partner organizations to oversee programs on the ground.

By engaging and empowering locals, social enterprises gain a better understanding of stakeholders’ priorities and approaches, thereby promoting the venture’s own success and sustainability.

  • Trigger a domino effect

Members of the local community who become involved in social enterprises not only offer their own experience and expertise but they also gain exposure to the social enterprise’s operations and outcomes. These community members can then apply that knowledge to other problems and activities, thus triggering a domino effect of indigenous social entrepreneurship.

Indeed, most of the social ventures profiled in the book have motivated new social entrepreneurs in various ways. Other library entrepreneurs in Rwanda have learned from and adopted the Kigali Public Library’s practices in establishing or restructuring their own library ventures. Indego Africa has implemented a “train the trainers” program to teach Rwandans business skills that they can then share with others. Generation Rwanda’s students now view themselves as potential changemakers in Rwandan society. Orphans Against AIDS assists its partner organizations in developing their capacities and implementing new technologies, and the venture incubates young social entrepreneurs by training and educating its volunteers. The National Vision for Sierra Leone, concerned about the lack of employment opportunities in that country, fostered participation and leadership among its domestic volunteers and paid staff. Children of Abraham alumni have facilitated cutting-edge communication and collaboration among peers. Americans for Informed Democracy inspires young people to pursue multilateral solutions to global problems, and provides them with tools to channel their activism.

  • Share experiences

Developing countries, especially those emerging from recent conflict or famine, are often caricatured. As the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie’s brilliant “The Danger of a Single Story” TED talk reminds us, Westerners too often think and speak of these regions in severely myopic terms. Social entrepreneurs from the industrialized world who work in such countries are well-positioned to ameliorate these misperceptions. These individuals should bring home accounts of their experiences so that their compatriots better appreciate just how vibrant and richly diverse the societies and cultures of developing countries are, and how much the developed world has to learn from them.

Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Social Entrepreneurship in the Age of Atrocities is that social entrepreneurs should pursue their work in the developing world as a mutually respectful partnership with locals—not as a flow of aid and expertise from North to South. Such genuine collaboration is the best way to progress toward a more peaceful, just, and egalitarian international community.

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