Social entrepreneurs: Harbingers of development spring in India, navigating a complex world

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By Moin Qazi*

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

Historians will tell you that an explosion of creativity occurs the moment the world starts complaining that there is nothing left to invent, or that the search for solutions to complex problems has come to an end. This explosion is fate’s way of reminding us that there is always something just over the horizon of knowledge.

Social entrepreneurs are now using their talent to seek better answers to tough social problems at a time when the world has never needed them more. They are responding to challenges with solutions that leave business-as-usual in the dust. They want to use the power of knowledge and the principles of business to create a better world. Making money is not necessarily their first objective. Their primary objective is to make a contribution.

The rise of soloists signals the ultimate atomisation of the modern world. It also demonstrates that individual initiatives can be as powerful game-changers as collective efforts. The power and reach of individual creativity have grown in inverse proportion to the shrinking of the global village. The failure of conventional strategies to alleviate the problems that the marginalised face today has triggered the creative juices of shoals of the younger lot. It has catapulted them to a cutting-edge vanguard position. This approach leaves no room for alibis and is highly committed to delivering results. This new generation of innovators, many from Ivy League universities, IITs and IIMs, are former bankers, academics, technocrats, bureaucrats and consultants. They favour open-source solutions that share intellectual property; whether computer code or DNA sequences, so those others can improve and build on their creations.

This is now a global phenomenon.   A number of bright and committed individuals have given up the best of salaries to serve development causes. India’s villages are among the most promising destinations for them. Moving from villages to bigger cities is no longer the norm. Increasingly, a growing number of people are moving back to their roots or smaller cities. Whether it is disenchantment with city life or the availability of better opportunities in smaller areas, this trend of ‘reverse migration’ is slowly catching on.

Two extraordinary personalities who studied at elite academies and opted for a career in the hinterland are Bunker (Sanjib) Roy and Aruna Roy. Although married to each other, they sought to pursue different paths and different agendas, albeit bonded by the same zeal to bring about a societal change. Bunker set up the famous Barefoot College in a remote village called Tilonia near Ajmer to serve as a nursery for training villagers in simple technologies such as plumbing, servicing solar lamps and hand pumps. Aruna worked for years out of a mud hut in Devdungri village in Rajasthan where the DNA of RTI and NREGA was assembled. Similarly the almost mythical doctor couple, Abhay and Rani Bang, set upon to revolutionise healthcare for the poorest people by establishing SEARCH in Gadchiroli, one of the most deprived districts in the Indian state of Maharashtra.

Tilonia and Devdungri are the Sewagram and Sabarmati of our times. Bunker and Aruna, and Abhay and Rani radiate a contagious light that diffuses energy among other people. They were fired not by a blind optimism that ignores the scale and scope of challenges, but rather a hard-earned optimism rooted in the stories of real progress. It’s a belief that each of us can make a difference, and all of us ought to try.

The influx of talents out of big cities to smaller centres is by no means an indication of aspiration deficit. Rather, it means these people are looking at the new port with a zeal that was earlier meant only for urban pockets. They want more fulfilling careers, ones that can enthuse and satiate their cravings.

We are witnessing collaborative social entrepreneurship trying to bring about large scale systemic change, giving us tools to navigate an increasingly complex and uncertain world with confidence, converting adversities into opportunities.

Social entrepreneurs are helping create an “everyone a changemaker world”, a world where each individual is driven by the positive idea of bringing about positive change. Their ideas and solutions have established new paradigms of problem solving. They have shown us that we inhabit a world where everyone must become a changemaker by adopting the path of teamwork, cognitive empathy and   collaborative leadership for creative solution seeking.

We have the example of Society for Education Welfare and Action-Rural (SEWA-Rural) where highly talented women have renounced their ambrosia and devoted their entire lifetime to empowering poor women. It would be outright vanity to dream of becoming social heroes overnight. The real development story is an aggregate of initiatives in thousands of clusters led by extraordinary people, few of them known and the vast majority of them unknown. For instance, SEWA Rural promotes work-life balance through multiple initiatives that include time-off for parents to support their wards appearing for board exams and special leave so that employees can attend camps for holistic living.

It can be difficult to attract people who have specialised skills and can, therefore, command a higher salary in more traditional segments of the business. There is also a problem in retention. Moreover, organisations usually invest a lot in helping managers develop the skills they need, but once they have those skills, they may have an opportunity to earn more in traditional segments. When they leave, the investment is lost.

When it comes to compensation, one or more issues often gets mixed up. There is the talk of money buying talent but not a commitment, the development sector needing a high level of commitment, and so on. This may be true, but one must not forget that a large number of competent, committed and concerned people would not venture into this sector if it does not secure their future financially.

However, compensation does not automatically solve the puzzle. It may take care of the financial security, but development jobs require an appropriate mindset. The most powerful factor at play is attitudinal behaviour and a proper frame of purpose. These can’t be taught in academic courses. The organisations need to build a pipeline of well-trained talent. Nowadays, most aspiring managers study at the elbow of a seasoned manager. There is no need to get intimidated by academics—book-smart PhDs, believing that replacing them with mere practitioners is anti-intellectual.

Development managers must have a clear set of credos, value statements, and rules in place—along with people who exemplify both organisational values and development orientation. The best organisations develop simple, communicable, and viral language that resonates with everyone. There’s no doubt that morale is higher when people have a strong sense of organisational purpose and personal impact, which creates a greater sense of belonging and improves retention. The challenge for organisations is not reducible to compensation systems; they need to act systematically to frame and reflect the company’s mission in different ways.

I never knew who Che Guevara, one of the world’s greatest revolutionaries, was, till I read this passage attributed to him: “The merit of Marx is that he suddenly produces a qualitative change in the history of social thought. He interprets history, understanding its dynamics, predicts the future, but in addition to predicting it; he expresses a revolutionary concept: the world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed.”

As the founder of Ashoka, the world‘s largest club of social entrepreneurs, Bill Drayton says: “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry”

*Contact: moinqazi123@gmail.com

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