Social entrepreneurship is the new mantra of development economics that tends to shape the development policy discourse as a counter-narrative to the conventional participatory approaches of rural development. Conventional bottom-up and horizontal participatory approaches of development have become less favourable as principles of social transformation in the contemporary theory of social change with the rise of social entrepreneurship as a new development consensus.
Contrary to the participatory approaches of Robert Chambers which, according to some critics, objectify people, social entrepreneurship is about individuals with creative and innovative ideas and the motivation to translate them into formal business ventures of social impact. As a result, social entrepreneurship is about a set of skills and techniques of people which, in turn, are shaped, nurtured and practiced through innovative ways for devising business solutions to address social issues.
Development experts from the Chambers’ camp would argue that social entrepreneurship is a contested notion that tends to reduce social experience to a business venture without creating social spaces for collective expression. Social enterprises may work to elevate self-selected individuals. But their success is contingent on a strong business value chain and an enabling policy environment for small-scale investments and a culture of impact investing.
For the proponents of participatory development, social entrepreneurship may sound like a sophisticated idea articulated from above and not by the local people. The critique goes like this: entrepreneurship is econometric, sophisticated and too technical and narrow as compared to the vast experiential knowledge of local wisdom. This is a top-down business idea imposed by development professionals rather than an organic conception articulated by the local people whose living experience and social reality are not determined by a business logic.
The development jargons of capitalistic attitude, business acumen, innovative thinking and rational behaviour are not the organic forms of epistemology but are crafted by development professionals who are trained in, what Marx would term, a defunct economic theory.
From a political economy perspective, one of the key challenges of social entrepreneurship is about its scalability as a social development programme in the absence of a favourable economic ecosystem of incentives and protectionism. This viewpoint can be evidenced in the real world of social development. In the recent past, women entrepreneurs of traditional handmade rugs and handcrafts were out of business in Hunza Valley when their products could not compete with the influx of Afghan rugs in the highly competitive down-country markets of Pakistan. It brought about the collapse of not only a social enterprise but also of the associated enterprises of e-commerce, online marketing and raw material supply system.
Social enterprises, therefore, require a set of perquisites to function as sustainable development models, which include – but are not limited to – an uninterrupted flow of products from the primary producer to the high-end market, the willingness of established brand monopolies to invest into innovative ideas and the availability of a niche market in a competitive world in terms of volumes, quality and cost. Even if these perquisites are met, social entrepreneurship in isolation will not affect socioeconomic transformation. It is, therefore, vital that social entrepreneurship becomes an integral part of integrated development programmes, social movements and advocacy campaigns to creating an enabling policy environment for socioeconomic equality.
Having said this, the participatory approaches of integrated development have been unable produce the results envisaged by the founding fathers of rural support programmes in Pakistan. The disillusionment with participatory approaches has led to a new development thinking, which is primarily influenced by the neoliberal ideology of self-interested entrepreneurial projects and economic development programmes. The failure of rural support programmes is attributed more to their inability to address evolving needs rather than their philosophy of participatory development.
The Chambers’ approaches of participatory rural development focused on tilting the power relations in favour of the poor through local organisation and the aggregation of voices of the poor. Need articulation at the local level through techniques of participatory rural appraisals formed the basis of all rural support programmes in Pakistan, pioneered by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in Gilgit-Baltistan.
These participatory approaches could have generated an interesting debate on local planning and development ownership. But in practice, they failed to establish value for money in terms of political empowerment and representation. In most instances, participatory approaches were manipulated to attain public buy-ins to implement predefined projects. These views were expressed succinctly at a civil society conference last week, which was organised by the Alternative Development Forum. According to a senior social development expert of the forum, participatory development was reduced to a set of project implementation techniques rather than engaging people in a process of political education and citizenship. This expert believes that one of the key impediments to empowerment is the lack of political representation in marginalised societies like Gilgit-Baltistan and the AKRSP could not provide a viable civil society alternative.
These views echo the general perception about the work that NGOs have done over the last four decades in Pakistan. But they also lose sight of the achievements of these civil society organisations in terms of improving access to basic social amenities and raising awareness about the rights of people.
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) played a critical role in improving access to education, health and finances in various parts of GB through integrated rural development programmes, but failed to provide a sustainable development model beyond the programme cycle. It also did not assume the role of a vibrant civil society to advocate the political rights of representation and citizenship to the unrepresented people of GB.
This is perhaps too much to ask from an organisation which was primarily mandated to focus on service delivery rather than political education. However, the AKRSP supported the formation of community-based local organisations as precursors of civil society. But these organisations could not provide an alternative model of social transformation given their nonpolitical nature and inorganic structure. These organisations started to wither away with the exit of the AKRSP.
When these community-based village organisations were on the verge of total collapse, the AKRSP founded union council-based local support organisations (LSOs) to function as proxies of the AKRSP and revive the structure of village organisations. There are some 40 LSOs across GB which can become the conduits of social and economic investments. But they are primarily dependent upon the AKRSP for their day-to day operations. However, there are long-term processes of social and political transformation at work in GB – particularly the fact that several men and women social activists of the AKRSP are now members of the GB Legislative Assembly. But there is little evidence about community-based organisations evolving into vibrant and transformative civil society platforms.
Poverty is multidimensional and political in nature. It is, therefore, vital to devise integrated and multi-sectoral development programmes as well as a strong voice for civil society.
Social service delivery and public welfare rests with the state. The real onus to make the state accountable to perform its duties lies with an informed citizenry. It is the role of civil society organisations to help promote citizenship rather than being trapped in a jargonised world of development. Civil society may, at times, trigger the depoliticisation of citizens by turning genuine political questions into technical jargon. No one other than Antonio Gramsci confided that the real role of civil society as an instrument of creating ideological hegemony in favour of the status quo. To liberate the poor from wretchedness, civil society has to first liberate itself from the clutches of politically debilitating jargon and from its role as an instrument of ideological hegemony.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.
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