Sunday, May 30, 2010

Strange Partners to Development: Culture

I'm going to make a presentation to my father's Rotary Club today on social enterprise. In it, I'm going to give them 3 examples of operational models of social enterprises. In the first model, the social enterprise sells goods or services to a target population, who are disadvantaged in some way. These goods or services in turn enable the target population to sell their goods or services in the market.

In the second model, the social enterprise buys goods from its target population, adds value to them, and sells them in the market. In the third model, the social enterprise sells its goods or services in the market, and uses the income to subsidize (either completely or partially) the goods or services it provides to its target population.

For an audience who is new to social enterprise, I expect them to question the first model the most. If your target population is the poor, aren't you exploiting them by asking them to pay for goods or services? My favorite article that addresses this question is Fisher's "Income Is Development", which was published in the special edition of innovations for the Skoll World Forum, and which you can find here. In his article, Fisher criticizes the Appropriate Technology (AT) movement, which lasted roughly from 1970 to 1985, for making the poor more dependent on aid by giving away technologies. Fisher also criticizes the AT movement for targeting groups and communities as technology owners, rather than individuals, saying that, "people in poor places are like people anywhere else: they will take care of their own families' needs before they will commit themselves to efforts to better their communities".

I'm willing to concede that poor people may take care of their own families' needs before they will commit themselves to efforts to better their communities. However, based on my observations, I would say that for many poor people, contributing to their communities comes at least a very close second to taking care of their own families' needs.

In my last post, I wrote about a study I conducted on sacred groves, where I found that the main threat to their biodiversity was the religious festivals that were held in them. The reason these festivals were such a threat was that they were an opportunity for village residents to host all their relatives from neighbouring villages, and therefore the bigger the festival, the higher the status of the hosting village and its residents. In another example, several women's development organizations have found that entrusting female survivors of disasters with both the money and the task of supervising reconstruction in their village, is the best way to make sure both that houses get rebuilt, and that psychological wounds heal, in record time. The desire to contribute is an universal human value, and where communities are more close-knit (whether by choice or by circumstance), that desire is even stronger.

Returning to Fisher's article, his emphasis on an individualistic approach is particularly surprising given that his organization, KickStart, designs and markets low-cost pumps, well drilling, water harvesting and storage technologies. Water is a common property resource, and it is here that KickStart could leverage the desire of their customers, whom their technologies have made prosperous, to contribute by recharging the ground water sources of their villages through infrastructure investments. While it will be important to ensure that these infrastructure investments don't share the same fate as the "give-aways" of the AT movement, there are cost-sharing models that could be worth exploring.

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