Thursday, December 20, 2007

Social Entrepreneurs -Silently Changing the World

When I had first heard of the Ashoka Foundation, I had imagined in my mind that it would be the social arm of a traditional Indian business house. With a name linked to the Emperor Ashoka, this was not a very unlikely possibility. Later on, when I discovered that they promoted social entrepreneurship, it still did not mean much to me.

Entrepreneurs we have all heard of. They are the business people with a difference; the ones with a prophetic footprint, who see an idea where others see only obstacles and then they unlike the dreamers and the visionaries go and do some thing about it. If there ideas succeed and they often do, the world is a different and often better place for their efforts. When I think of this genre of businessmen, the names of Sabeer Bhatia and Sam Pitroda are some of the Indian names that come to my mind.

So just who is a social entrepreneur? Allow the Ashoka Foundation, which popularized the term to explain: Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka expands by saying that “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”

Although the term is one not often heard used in India, we have plenty of them starting of course with the emperor Ashoka whose conversion to Buddhism sparked of a 180 degree change in methods of governance in ancient India that was radical. Drayton cites the shift in the emperor’s paradigm – from merely holding on to the kingdom and enlarging it to ensuring that subjects living in the kingdom are well cared for and looking after their welfare as one of the most monumental acts of social entrepreneurship which inspired him to name his foundation which would support future entrepreneurial initiatives after the Buddhist icon.

Drayton has other unlikely inspirers he counts the late Acharya Vinoba Bhave and his innovatively conceived Bhoodan and Gramdaan initiatives which largely failed as experiments in social entrepreneurship. The early years of the foundation and the movement it seeks to catalyze are documented in the appropriately titled book How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Penguin Books, India) authored by David Bornstein which was released in India by the IT entrepreneur , Narayana Murthy of Infosys.

Have there been other social entrepreneurs in India since Ashoka? Oh, yes plenty. But their names might not be as familiar to the average Indian as the entrepreneurs from the world of business. I, who work in the social sector could recognize only a few whose work and activity occasionally draws them media attention – Javed Abidi, the disability activist, Flavia Agnes, the human rights lawyer, who appears occasionally on NDTV, Anil Aggarwal, the environmentalist whose crusade brought CNG buses to Delhi and Jeroo Billimoria of child line and a few others.

I think that social entrepreneurs deserve a bit more of name recognition, brand recognition too if you will, for the invaluable work that they do quietly and largely unsung in the grassroots. For at the end of the day, it does not matter how much India’s economy grows and what our GDP is if the disabled do not have access to jobs and amenities, if children do not have access to help, shelter and safe spaces and the elderly lives of lonely neglect. Gandhi famously remarked that the way in which we treat minorities is the measure of civilization in a society. In differing ways, we have all failed Gandhi’s test but the social entrepreneurs are trying hard to make a difference. They deserve our applause and laudation.

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