Shane Heywood

Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development

Social Enterprises, Band-Aids and Refugee Camps: Uncomfortable Similarities, Meaningful Differences

In 2008, disputes after a federal election led to substantive political violence in Kenya. Three years later, after 600,000 people were displaced by the violence, 200,000 of those victims – Internally Displaced Peoples – are still residing in a refugee camp. Outside of Kenya, refugee camps unfortunately maintain a prevalent and pervasive presence on the African continent.

Band-aids, whether the animated or plain kind, can often provide temporary relief to some injuries.

What in the world do refugee camps and band-aids have to do with social enterprises?

The Similarity: Temporary Relief
The inescapable – and often infrequently acknowledged – similarity is that like refugee camps or band-aids, social enterprises are inherently temporary, filling in the shortcomings of governments.

Areas which social enterprises address are varied, but often fall under Health, Education, Sanitation, and Energy. In other words, public goods that are probably best provided by a government with the capacity and will to do so. Sadly, in far too many parts of the world, some governments lack the will, capacity – or both – to provide these goods.

And while parts of the developing world have yet to demonstrate that governments are the best means of goods/service delivery, it is unlikely that a private enterprise or NGO can provide on a scale, efficiency and cost to supplant a government and support an entire nation.

Refugee camps allow the temporary provision of some critical goods and services to children, men and women, suffering from strife in troubled regions. Band-aids, well – you know what they do.

Yet, like refugee camps, social enterprises are addressing the gaps left by indifferent or incapable governments.

The disconcerting element is that while refugee camps explicitly acknowledge their temporary nature, such a perspective is not often widespread among social enterprises. In fact, with the – very worthy – focus on scale, sustainability, impact, and measuring that impact, social enterprises seem to miss the fact that their ultimate end goal is to work themselves out of a job.

The Difference: Long-Lasting Public Policy
For my future social entrepreneurs: delivering impact on a wide scale in a sustainable is a valuable and important objective.

Yet, your highest and most pervasive achievement may well rest on an ability to bring about changes in public policy. In other words, encouraging and/or enabling governments to become interested in, or capable of, the effective provision of critical goods and services.

How? Well two ways: success and networks.

At the risk of sounding contradictory, successfully demonstrating that a good/service can be provided will provide the platform for encouraging change in a nation. To say it another way, while relatively obvious – the ability to scale your venture and demonstrate success will provide a platform for driving broader change through policy.

A network among enterprises and organizations provides an opportunity to amplify messages of change and improvement. Organizations that bring together social enterprises under one roof are a good start. For example, think of the insights GIIN maybe able to share with future governments on the most effective way to deliver goods?

How powerful would it be for South Sudan to benefit from, and create policy based on, the lessons generated by such an organization?

Yet, networking should not be restricted to organizations of a similar ilk. Social enterprises should also work with charities, NGOs, international financial institutions, private actors, and multilateral organizations to create a coherent and articulate message on policy to empower low-income households.

All of this will be in an effort to not just create scale and impact, but sustainable, widespread and meaningful change.


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