The GCC social entrepreneur – in the shadows of big institutions


Social Entrepreneurship – A widely misunderstood term, especially in our region!  Having advocated for the development of the social enterprise eco-system in the GCC since 2006,  I am glad to see the attention it is receiving AND concerned at the approach adopted by some entrants into the space; particularly large “supporting” institutions.

Trail-blazing social entrepreneurs worked hard in the past six years or so to create value, support cause, deliver goods and services while sustaining their organizations as best as they could.  They had a grassroots approach, one that called for educating the public one person at a time; ensuring those they interacted with understood their vision, the space and the right approach to sustainability.  They had challenges that required the help of large (in size and financial might) “supporting” institutions.

As more of these large institutions began to take notice, something counter-productive happened.  The speaking engagements, media channels and funding that was earmarked to social entrepreneurs was re-purposed to build the capacity within the large institutions to market and build their services.  The term “catalytic” came into play. While in principle of “being the catalyst” to support social enterprise sounds great, in practice,  It has taken away the communication channels, the community attention and the funding from the social entrepreneur.  Who’s going to host Ritesh Tilani of Carezone when they have the CEO of Emirates Foundation? Who will fund Buksha when they can put their funds in Acumen or Ashoka!

I believe there is a need for these organizations. They exist to support the social entrepreneur. That is their core mission. Therefore, if they lack the funds, or the reputation in the local market, then a better approach would be to support local entrepreneurs and ride on the PR campaigns and success stories. They should prove they are invested in the field by helping those who’ve been there rather than spend time and energy on your own PR and capacity building!

Today, I will attend yet another seminar where the panel of speakers is leaders of large institutions that have become the voice of social entrepreneurship landscape, yet effectively have highjacked the media from those in the field, and failed to address their ever growing concerns.

An excerpt of an article in Shareable capture some of my concerns well:

Social enterprise empowers people so that they can amplify the great work they are doing already. It is not something done to people or for people. It should be a collaborative effort done with and chiefly by those people. 

Social entrepreneurship is not about elitist fellowships, conferences, summits, accelerators, coworking spaces, or contests. Social entrepreneurship is not about charity or even about philanthropy, and it’s certainly not about wealth redistribution. Social entrepreneurship is about opportunity and power distribution. 

The economy is a human construct. It’s a formalized system for how and why we relate to each other and how and why we create value for our society. Any social enterprise venture must have members of the disenfranchised in positions of power inside the venture, be that as a founder, executive or board member.

Members of privileged groups can be part of the solution by sharing power with underserved communities as they contribute their skills, knowledge and labor to solve their own problems and create value for society. This should be a partnership. Privileged groups should not be saviors or benevolent agents – rather they should be collaborators in creating a healthy economy that benefits everyone.

You don’t solve poverty with money. You solve poverty with agency. 

You don’t solve poverty with money. You solve poverty with agency.

via Shareable: Is Social Entrepreneurship the Rich Saving the Poor?.

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3 thoughts on “The GCC social entrepreneur – in the shadows of big institutions

  1. Hi Rama, and thanks for bringing this to more visibility. I am wondering, what would be the right question to be asked here? And if we could have a participatory session, with multiple stakeholders,including those from bigger institutions, to just sit together around the right question. Panel of experts is brilliant process, but sometimes we need to hear every voice in the room. I would love to inquire into the possibility of this way forward. I believe HOW we engage with these subtle and very critical energies is more important than the solution itself.

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