June 06, 2020
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At Swim, Two Ideas

Semantics apart, the youth's concern for society is laudable

At Swim, Two Ideas
R. Prasad
At Swim, Two Ideas
I recently found that many engineering and management graduates have actually been leaving their lucrative jobs in the US to return to India and work in villages. Their numbers may not quite be in hundreds, but I personally know of 15 who have done that in the last two years. There could be more. Sometimes they do it on their own. At times, there are NRI organisations who inspire them and provide them with opportunities. Many of them are working in hostile conditions in interior India to make the Right to Information (RTI) and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) work. Many people also join NGOs immediately after college, without taking up regular jobs. Many quit their jobs in India after a few years. They have to fight many battles. The most difficult of them being the stiff opposition from their families, whose expectations from their offspring are suddenly shattered.

Earlier, people thought these things were to be done after retirement. It is heartening that youngsters are realising it would be too late by then. Earlier, people would be content by donating a part of their earnings. Now many people are participating in various projects that use the money. When you participate, you donate a part of your life. That changes you. It strengthens you—emotionally and spiritually. Many youngsters are opting for inner satisfaction rather than material gains.

Are all these people "social entrepreneurs", just like you have business entrepreneurs? I am not very comfortable with the term "social entrepreneur". I have great respect for business entrepreneurs, small and big, who in the process of making an honest living contribute to society. I also have great respect for people in the social sector. However, I am not very comfortable with these semantics. Such classification perhaps results from a tendency to look at everything from business glasses. Since one who takes an initiative in a business is called a "business entrepreneur", one who takes an initiative in the social sector should therefore be called a "social entrepreneur". Were Buddha, Jesus and Prophet Mohammed social entrepreneurs? Or were they 'spiritual entrepreneurs'? Were all freedom fighters social entrepreneurs? Would it make any difference to their contributions or would it help in understanding them better if we called them "social entrepreneurs"?

Both business and social entrepreneurs take initiatives or risks. But the similarity, if any, perhaps ends there. Their motivations and goals are completely different, if not conflicting at times. Families react differently to the two. One works on selfless service, the other on personal profits.

Such classification sometimes does unintentional damage. After calling them "social entrepreneurs", they are then called upon to learn and organise their affairs like business entrepreneurs. For instance, business entrepreneurs look at every activity as a "model", which should be "replicated to scale it up" for greater impact. But not everything is replicable. Was India's freedom movement a model? Can it be replicated? Are the RTI movement or Chipko andolan or Narmada Bachao Andolan models? Each movement is unique. We can learn from movements, we cannot mass produce them. That does not mean that no activity in the NGO sector can be replicated. There are many activities, which could be replicated—the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh is a model and has been replicated in many countries. Self-help groups are also replicable.

Therefore, every activity has to be looked at independently. The idea is to do good work, rather than indulge in needless classifications. Individuals don't have to quit their jobs to work for society. One can always take time off from one's regular job. The recently enacted RTIA has opened up opportunities for individuals to be able to make a difference while leading their daily lives.

But sometimes, one also comes across the pretence of good work. Some people pay meagre wages to workers, produce inferior quality products and pay bribes to officials. But at the end of the year, they donate a small part of their profits amidst great fanfare, and get awards for corporate social responsibility. These donations, while doing little good to society, bring publicity to the company and tend to legitimise their activities. Therefore, as a part of their CSR, companies should undertake to do their business not just legally, but also in an ethical and just manner.

(Kejriwal was awarded the 2006 Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership.)
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