From Our Director

by Dennis Shaughnessy

For April/May edi­tion of the SEI Newsletter

Aware­ness, Action and Social Entrepreneurship

 KONY 2012.  It’s been a hot dis­cus­sion topic around many cam­puses, ours included, over the past sev­eral weeks.  Is it a good or a bad thing that an orga­ni­za­tion like Invis­i­ble Chil­dren focuses on aware­ness, rather than action that leads to real change and last­ing impact.  Should we be con­cerned about how much donor money is invested in telling a tragic story, rather than chang­ing the out­come of the story?  Is the money being raised from young peo­ple across the United States “smart money” where the giver fully under­stands what she is really invest­ing in?

The pur­pose of this short note is not to offer a crit­i­cal com­men­tary on the Invis­i­ble Chil­dren orga­ni­za­tion or its founders.  I cer­tainly com­mend the orga­ni­za­tion for its efforts to engage young peo­ple in crit­i­cal think­ing about prob­lems like global poverty and the abuse of already mar­gin­al­ized chil­dren.  Rather, the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the KONY 2012 viral video offers an impor­tant oppor­tu­nity to con­sider the dif­fer­ent roles and respon­si­bil­i­ties of advo­cates, activists, phil­an­thropists and social entre­pre­neurs in address­ing social problems.  

Advo­cates and activists play crit­i­cal roles in address­ing social prob­lems, pri­mar­ily by increas­ing aware­ness among those who are not close to, inter­ested in or touched by a par­tic­u­lar social prob­lem.  Advo­cacy and activism can and often does lead to the next step, which is action.  Phil­an­thropists are the key play­ers who fund typ­i­cally char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions that either take action to address the social prob­lem or finan­cially sup­port those who do.  Social entre­pre­neurs, or at least the best ones, are the peo­ple who con­vert aware­ness and giv­ing into grass­roots action, by cre­at­ing and devel­op­ing inno­v­a­tive and sus­tain­able enter­prise solu­tions to the under­ly­ing social prob­lem.  I have no doubt that social entre­pre­neurs will con­tinue to work qui­etly and effec­tively to effect change at the grass­roots level that improves the lives of mar­gin­al­ized chil­dren and young peo­ple, in Uganda and through­out the world, with­out fan­fare or film.  These are the change agents that truly deserve the atten­tion, sup­port and invest­ment of con­cerned global citizens.  

Aware­ness is an essen­tial first step in address­ing any prob­lem.  We hope that the world, and espe­cially the young, will see that the less “sexy” but equally impor­tant next step of entre­pre­neur­ial action, also deserves their atten­tion, and sup­port.  We see com­pelling exam­ples of this kind of action every­day when work­ing with social enter­prises like Root Cap­i­tal (pro­vides the “miss­ing mid­dle” of financ­ing for agri­cul­tural coop­er­a­tives), Tech­noserve (pro­vid­ing tech­ni­cal assis­tance and busi­ness con­sult­ing ser­vices to poor farm­ers around the world), Fonkoze (micro­cre­dit and ser­vices for Haiti’s poor­est women), and TSiBA South Africa (edu­cat­ing South Africa’s next gen­er­a­tion of entrepreneurs).

I’m sure that there are many young Ugan­dan and other social entre­pre­neurs work­ing as I type this note to improve and strengthen edu­ca­tional and employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties for young peo­ple in their home coun­try, for exam­ple.  They are tak­ing action to make the real change we all hope to see, one child at a time. 

For an exam­ple of young peo­ple mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in sim­i­lar cir­cum­stances in Kenya, have a look at The Par­a­digm Project, where one of pro­gram alums Nele Groos­man is cur­rently work­ing to bring clean burn­ing stoves to the infor­mal set­tle­ment of Kib­era:   http://www.theparadigmproject.org/

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