Addressing present-day inequities and gaps: Why India needs social entrepreneurs

By Ravi Sreedharan and Lopamudra Sanyal

When India gained Independence, development indices of the country posed major challenges to our growth and well-being. In 1947, 92% of this country was illiterate and could not write their own names, average life expectancy at birth was 23 years, poverty was in the vicinity of 99%. However, in a span of 70 years, the country has been able to address most of its foundational developmental areas. We now have a literacy of 74%, a life expectancy of 69 years, and have been able to reduce poverty in tangible ways.

Much of this progress has been possible owing to the coming together of Samaaj (society), Sarkar (government) and Bazaar (markets). While civil society had a huge role to play in the days leading up to freedom at midnight, this sector has played an equally powerful role in the progress India has seen since independence. The paradox today is that the potential and contributions of this important pillar of our growth, namely the civil society, remains out of view. For the benefit of the readers, some of the significant aspects of development in India have its roots in the work of civil society. The Right to Information Act, National Livelihood Mission, Grassroot Health Workers (ASHA), the Right to Education Act, the Food Security Act, LGBTQ Rights to name a few.

Another vital contributor to our development that has made visible contributions to the space of social and human development has been the role of social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs have addressed essential human needs that have been ignored and forgotten by current institutions and businesses. The work and innovations by social entrepreneurs today continue to redefine social norms, the nature and access to services including healthcare and many other domains. The work done by Aravind Eyecare in the space of healthcare, for instance is a landmark in reducing inequities in healthcare for the underprivileged. The reach and success achieved by the organisation for decades makes a definitive point for India to look beyond the charity or philanthropy models.

There has never been a more exciting time in the country to become a social entrepreneur in India. The nature, varied complexity, dynamism and quantum of the developmental needs of India has necessitated the need to incubate, mentor and celebrate social entrepreneurship and enterprise now more than ever before.

The energetic youth of today requires greater opportunities to be mentored and guided to be able to incubate and initiate enterprises that respond to planetary, human and social challenges that the world is seeing.

The Deloitte Millennial Survey for 2014 surveyed nearly 7,800 millennials from 28 countries across Western Europe, North America, Latin America, BRICS and Asia-Pacific about business, government and innovation. The findings from the survey indicate that millennials (75 percent) shared that business has a direct and positive impact by providing livelihoods (46 percent) and increasing prosperity (71 percent), they however believe that businesses need to engage more to respond to present crisis: resource scarcity (56 percent), climate change (55 percent) and income equality (49 percent). In addition to this, the survey highlighted that 50% of the young people who participated in the survey wish to engage with businesses that follow ethical practices.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to be a part of the higher education space in the country have been privy to many young people take to social entrepreneurship initiatives as a response to their need to engage in meaningful work. The incubation, mentoring and handholding of these social entrepreneurs is essential, not only for the success of their ventures, but also for the social change and transformation these enterprises entail for us all.

The seminal contribution of organisations like Ashoka, Villgro and others in shaping, encouraging and creating social entrepreneurs in the country is unparalleled. The context within which a social entrepreneur founds their innovation and initiative becomes a trail blazer for others around them,

apart from directly making positive impact to the issue their enterprise responds to.

For social enterprises to have a significant impact, development management, which has hitherto been a poor cousin of business management in Business Schools, needs to come out of the shadows and establish itself as a powerful game changer and requiring very different set of knowledge, skills

and capabilities.

The country and the world today, need more leaders who lead with values and work to address present inequities and gaps. Leaders who are capable of ‘responding’ to the emerging needs in society, but are also committed to ‘realising’ a new future that paves the way for a regenerative paradigm of existence. In the words of Bill Drayton, the Founder and CEO of Ashoka, “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionised the fishing industry.”

(Ravi Sreedharan is Founder-Director and Lopamudra Sanyal is Research Fellow at the Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a pioneering institution established to develop the discipline of Development Management)

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