Social Entrepreneurship: The Future of International Development?

by Soon Kyu Choi

Nicolas D. Kristof’s article “D.I.Y Foreign-Aid Revolution” outlines the journeys of three women inspired by the possibility to improve the lives of those less fortunate. These seemingly ordinary women, not particularly trained in economics or development studies, have found innovative ways to provide sanitary pads for women in Mozambique, help rape survivors in the Congo, and provide education and shelter to orphans in Nepal. Innovation, devotion to a cause, and determination to make a difference are the qualities these women share.

The article picks up on a growing trend within the international development industry called social entrepreneurship. A social entrepreneur is an individual who finds innovative solutions to social problems. Much like traditional entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs find ways to improve systems to deliver better results, though unlike business entrepreneurs, the goal is to produce social value rather than profit. Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, is one of the most well-known social entrepreneurs who recognized that the poor rural people of Bangladesh had the credibility and ability to own credit and have access to banking services. This social venture has provided poor and near-poor people with a range of quality financial services, paving an avenue to alleviate and possibly escape poverty. Today, Yunus’ Grameen Bank serves as an example for other microfinance endeavors worldwide.

One individual’s innovative idea and implementation changed the way the world viewed the poor and their money managing ability. This faith that one person’s idea with the right entrepreneur can change the way society views itself and ultimately how society functions is the premise of Ashoka Foundation and a mission statement an increasing number of powerful development oriented institutions subscribe to.

The attention to innovation, the individual, and ideas is starkly different from past international development trends and actors. The history of international development arguably begins after World War II, with the founding of two major international organizations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), known today as the World Bank (WB). International development solutions and ideas are usually generated from within such institutions or from the academic community working in tandem with the WB. Traditional actors are international organizations and domestic governments that often implement development projects through top-down policies. The benefit of such an approach is its widespread impact and replicability. On the other hand, scholars such as William Easterly, argue this cookie cutter approach to international development creates more problems as top-down policies ignore cultural, social, economic, political and historical conditions unique to each area causing more problems than solutions. It is unclear which approach is best and this debate over how to eliminate poverty worldwide continues.

While the institutions work through their bureaucracy and problems, there are a growing number of individuals taking a stand against injustices as the article suggests. What has brought upon this trend is uncertain. Information technology, a growing sense of altruism or perhaps a sense of responsibility toward fellow global citizens, have buttressed this increasing group of people to approach societal problems with flexibility, innovation and determination.

There is no doubt that international and national policies and big organizations are still the main actors in development. However, this trend in individuals, often young individuals, taking a stand against injustices abroad is not to be ignored.

It is too early to tell whether this new wave of social entrepreneurs will have a large scale impact on international development. But as history has shown, large social change is often a result of small incremental changes. Social entrepreneurs may be the new face of development and a collective power to watch.

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