Critical role of civil society

by Robin Low

The idea of a welfare state is shunned by many countries and groups within our modern business-oriented society. At the same time, the rise of neo liberalism and the growing concentration of wealth have created the conditions for an explosive growth of philanthropy. We have limited resources but ambitious Sustainable Development Goals, so we look to philanthropy for funds, which gives the philanthrops and funders greater influence and makes them important stakeholders in shaping global social change.

With wealth and profits increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, this is a worrying sign that the super-rich will have even more influence in development, democracy and politics worldwide. As many social enterprises of the Global South are funded by philanthropes from the Global North, this trend perpetuates the very same divide that the Sustainable Development Goals are trying to bridge.

There are now two very different approaches to solving social issues. On one hand, we have the older non-profits, charities, social movements and community based groups. On the other hand, we have any new technology and market focused social enterprises.

The old non-profits approach integrates social sciences with a systematic approach, which takes into account the complexities and various interdependent and interrelated factors at work in a system, which must be understood to affect change in the system. SPCA for example reduces the scope for government intervention, while creating a space for more voluntary actions by stimulating donations and volunteer efforts. The new-age non-profits on the other hand, find simple technology-based solutions for the complex social, economic and political issues. Embrace Innovations is a social enterprise that designed an incubator that costs less than 1% the cost of a traditional incubator to give premature and underweight babies in the developing world a better chance at life.

Their approach does not seek to ease a visible pain but instead adopts an entrepreneurial spirit to visualize opportunities for sustainable services and products that can achieve social impact while addressing the problem and creating more opportunities.

Without taking societal and situational complexities into account, this approach can create paradoxical situations that cloud the impact it gives. For example, when introducing a new water filter technology to give villagers clean water, I have seen some villages poison their own water source to ensure the organizations prioritize their villages first.

In other instances, social intervention to increase the income of farmers with farming technology, has led to a growth in the number of farmers and the demand of water, which in turn leads to the creation of more dams and the clearing of land. Ultimately, this creates more problems for the downstream communities, as it propagates pollution and the loss of biodiversity

Social enterprises funded by philanthropy are growing rapidly, depleting resources going to traditional non-profits, leading to their decline. Donors today like to see the KPIs met and focus on fast results, believing that complex problems can be solved by the introduction of technology. These organizations also prefer to run like businesses, increasingly being run by managers with MBAs or technological backgrounds, rather than a mix of academics with a social science background.

In addition, these social enterprises often change how basic services are delivered for the most excluded populations, which may lead to long term detrimental effects of society, and may affect the fundamentals of democracy. In the developing world, micro-finance has been co-opted and exploited for private financial gain at the expense of social needs and justice.

Civil society should play two important functions when it comes to helping those most in need. The first function is creating and nurturing new ideas for transformative change. Because of the way that most social enterprises are set up, it is hard for the community to play this role. Second, civil society plays a crucial role in seeking the accountability of power, and new social enterprises do not measure the power of these excluded groups. In addition, the metrics used are generally simple and based on economic principles – like revenue or profits – that do not address power.

Power and economics are being taken from excluded communities through new fancy organizations called social enterprises. We need to understand that fulfilling the basic human needs like food, shelter and health does not end misery, exploitation and indignity.

We cannot rely on just a system that pretends to play an important role by fighting the manifestations of poverty, and not engage with structural questions of poverty, injustice, indignity and enslavement. Philanthropy should be about human dignity and justice, defending rights such as the right to life, equality before the law, freedom of expression, the rights to work, social security and education.

If we believe that resources are scarce, then we should see if we can engage the beneficiaries to see if they can be accountable for their actions and work on a better solution for their communities. NGOs need to engage their beneficiary, to work together on fixing situation and speak up for them, instead of taking pity. The poor, the handicapped and the marginalized people are not stupid people, they have ideas and dreams. Social enterprises should try to engage their beneficiaries in leadership roles, and look at other social aspects which they affect the ecosystem, and if they are indeed creating a positive change or patching the gap in the short term.

Each member of civil society has a role but many don’t discover these roles until they get immersed into a social impact situation or opportunity. Exposure is the key and soul satisfaction is the objective. It sometimes requires helping a fellow human to discover and ultimately partner to leverage their strengths for societal benefit.