From Social Activism to Social Entrepreneurship

Asif Saleh

Photo: Drik News

Four years ago in Puthia Upazila, Rajshahi, Shujon, a day labourer from Dhopapara village, would somehow manage to come home, light up his candles and study late into the night. He not only studied, but actually managed to get a golden GPA. Considering how hard he worked, how far could he push himself? Sadly, his steam soon ran out when he could not pay for college tuition.

Khokon, another young man from the same village, was tormented on hearing this news. He himself came from a not-so-well-off family but he couldn't bear the fact that such a bright student would have to stop studying simply because of a lack of money. Something was triggered in him and Khokon reached out to a few well-off individuals he knew in the village. They all chipped in together to help the brilliant day labourer student Shujon and he made it to college. Shujon is now completing his first year at Rajshahi Engineering University.

Since then Khokon, who himself studies through a student loan, has given similar financial assistance to over 50 odd students and has become an inspiration to local people, particularly the younger generation. Khokon is making his mark in society with his resourcefulness. What is amazing about this story is the sheer willpower and mobilisation ability of a young man to make a huge difference in his surroundings and community.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, before we outsourced our volunteerism to NGOs, there were lots of stories like Khokon's. Volunteering was part of Bangladeshi DNA and yet, it became less heard of over time. But that drive to change one's surroundings and to make things right and fair remains among the younger generation. In 1972, a small band of volunteers with even smaller seed money started the work of rebuilding Bangladesh under the leadership of a returnee Bangladeshi from abroad. Forty years later, it has become the organisation BRAC. Another group of young Bangladeshis, who wanted to help with healthcare, started Gonoshasthyo Kendro. Today, these are both towering NGOs. If you look back, the founders were all twenty or thirty-somethings. Fazle Hasan Abed was 36 when he started BRAC. Khushi Kabir, who joined BRAC as its first employee, was fresh out of university with hunger in her belly to help the liberation war-torn Bangladesh rebuild. Dr. Yunus was a young professor when he started tinkering with the Grameen micro-credit model. In parallel, more importantly, during any national crisis, one can see citizens have joined in on all fronts to help with national needs.

So where are the future social entrepreneurs now? What would the scene of social changemakers look like 40 years from now? If the trend is anything to go by, the culture of volunteering for your community has drastically altered since the early nineties, the period which saw the rise of NGOs in Bangladesh. As donor money poured into NGOs, the notion of doing a good deed for the community somehow got laced with writing proposals for donors. NGOs have brought in a lot more efficiency into this sector, but as an unintended consequence, the majority of us have decided to leave social work to NGOs and donors. Unfortunately, NGOs cannot be a replacement to volunteering for your community, which brings a sense of ownership to change among citizens. If one wants to solve a social problem, one has to have a deep understanding of the problem itself before one looks for a solution. Volunteering is always that first step and opportunity to develop that understanding.

The sense of ownership about changing things for the better in our country is critical for national progress and it remains surprisingly strong among the younger generation of Bangladesh. In the 'Next Generation' survey done by British Council, 88% of the young people said that they wanted to do something for their society and the lack of the right platform continued to be a big hindrance. So who is going to build the right platform?

In the next 40 years, the role will continue to be strong for two kinds of changemakers in Bangladesh -- social activists and social entrepreneurs. While passion for activism in the form of protest and injustice remained strong in the heart of Bangladeshi youth since pre-1952, the role of entrepreneurs -- both business and social -- however are becoming more crucial in the new and emerging Bangladesh. This is mainly because lasting changes require thinking of the long-term sustainability of an intervention. In the social sector, social entrepreneurs are people who recognise a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organise, create and manage a venture to achieve social change. With growing challenges in urbanisation, climate issues and unemployment, it is mainly entrepreneurship from the young that can potentially change the face of Bangladesh. Why single out the young people, one may ask? Because when you are young, you tend to accept the status quo a little less and tend to be more innovative about finding a solution to a problem. We need more young people who will solve problems than raise 'awareness' about a problem. We need more solution providers than problem makers and the lead will come from the young people.

The job is not easy, however --- especially when we do not have the support structure for such entrepreneurs. The example of Khokon that I gave is a real one featured in Prothom Alo a few months ago. He is clearly a changemaker who does not accept the status quo. He saw unfairness in the system, inequality in the society and took his own initiative to do something about it. Now he has expanded his outreach. He has made a difference in his community. Where will he go next? How does he scale up? How does the system support changemakers like him?

Answers to those questions may lead to a forecast of how the scene for social entrepreneurs will look in 40 years from now. The world has moved beyond community solutions provided by community, extended families and government, to transformative innovations created by public, private and nonprofit collaborations. Many collaborative approaches take advantage of economies of scale and market mechanisms to use resources more efficiently to produce positive outcomes at greater scale. The real challenge for Bangladesh lies in creating an eco-system which can identify such entrepreneurial and innovative young minds and connect them to larger public, private and nonprofit collaborations in a way that they can they have real room for growth.

Salman Khan, a thirty-something Bangladeshi American, has taken the world by storm with his innovative approach to using technology for education. Rajshahi's Khokon has become a role model in his Upazila by solving a local problem, by providing aid to needy students. What they have in common is a deep awareness of the social problem and a willingness to change it through their innovative and entrepreneurial approaches. What they don't have in common is the eco-system. While Salman Khan after quiting his job can get picked up nationally with various helping hands to bolster his efforts, our Khokon continues to work in a small silo with most people hardly noticing. Let's try to change that. Let's create a system where a thousand flowers, such as the few highlighted in this section of supplement, can bloom.

Asif Saleh is the Director of Communications and Head of the Social Innovation Lab at BRAC