Social entrepreneurship: No, not a joke
I have a confession to make.
I’m obsessed with Lebanese-made clutches and clothes.
Now, I need you to realise that this is quite a statement for me to make. For centuries, women who studied and fought for what they believed in were not supposed to care about mundane things such as clothes and shoes.
But I do. And along with me, believe me, thousands of others.
I’ve learnt to come to terms with that and enjoy my frivolity as a means to escape the awful things I had to deal with everyday during my studies (Humanitarian law forces you to go through documentaries and testimonies on Srebrenica, which is no fun believe me) and still have to at work (HIV, Violence Against Women, and war, to name a few).
So the best therapy for me is to go to my friend’s Coralie shop in Geneva, and let her soothe me with coffee, candies and clutches that remind me of home.
But this is without counting the guilt that comes with it (I’m Lebanese, “Guilt” comes with me as a package). However much I would like to, I still get pangs of guilt whenever I go on a shopping spree: how can I be spending money that could otherwise be spent on sponsoring a child from Village SOS/donating to my own organisation/putting aside for my future?
Luckily for me, other women struggled with these issues as well and came up with rather wonderful ideas to reconcile love of style with love of humanity, while keeping their identity as Arabs.
Women such as Sarah Beydoun and Sarah Nahhouli, owners of the wonderful brand Sarah’s bag. Willing to improve the lives of vulnerable women while being a fashion lover, Sarah Beydoun founded her company in 2000 and set it up as part of a rehabilitation programme for women who had served time in prison and for single women who suffered from economic hardship. By doing so, the company helps these women reinsert into civil life, their newly-found economic independence empowering them and helping them to build on their self-confidence.
Companies like Sarah’s Bag are labelled « social entrepreneurs ». What is a social entrepreneur? The clinical definition that we can find is : « An entrepreneur who engages in business seeking both financial and social return ». Behind this very succinct definition, lies a spectrum of dedicated people, from the social and environmental-conscious business-man (don’t snort, they do exist) to the forward-thinking NGO worker, who realised the public sector has to come up with new means of fundraising if they are to be sustainable, all the more in our context of economic crisis.
It now seems that the days of strict division between non-profit and for-profit sectors are gently becoming history. NGOs have realised for a long time that income-generating activities are paramount both to the economic empowerment of the communities they’re serving, enabling them to break the crippling dependence towards the non-profit sector, and to the NGO itself. Income generating activities have always been a means for the NGOs to alleviate their reliance on donor’s envelopes, that recently have become lighter due to the financial crisis. On the other hand, setting up programmes that enable vulnerable population to have their own income is one of the key way to development.
This is when the « for-profit » sector comes into the picture.
As someone who has volunteered and worked in NGOs, I can testify that I’ve seen with what weariness the public sector looks at the private. The corporate world is seen as power and money hungry, and people who work for them as cynical vampires who would readily sell their already dead grandmother for a couple of millions. However much of a caricature this might be, the tension exists.
However, the private sector definitely has something the non-profit lacks: professionalism. Since companies deal with important amounts of money, and since benefits guarantee their success and sustainability, for-profits institution carry out evaluations, audits, timely reports, strive to innovate, to be competitive, in a word, apply the strict rules of business. They have to work hard to harvest the fruits of their work.
On the other hand, NGOs rely on donors and grants, which have another dynamic: an application is filled according to the donor’s criteria, it is approved, the money is received, and depending on the donor, reports are asked. And that’s more or less it (please calculate all the back and forth in e-mails and « friend-making » with the donor.) So yes, I’ve witnessed very late reporting, unmet deadlines in implementing projects etc…Where’s the pressure since we have received the money before working hard on the project? Moreover, this process leads the NGO to become reliant on donors and to follow donor trends. NGOs who work in non-fashionable areas or regions have very few chances of getting grants. For example, if an NGO was set up to fight stigma and discrimination towards women who are just out in prison in Lebanon, it could wait a long time, because neither the topic nor the region are very popular with donors at the moment. Whereas social entrepreneurs like the Sarahs have managed to do the job of an NGO by their own means. Definitely worth looking into for the non-profit sector.
Nevertheless, there are things that the for-profit sector can’t do as well as the non-profit. If Sarah’s bag can help the women by providing them with an income, it is not doing anything regarding a shift in mentalities regarding these women. Advocacy remains the realm of the non-profit, and this is essential if the message wants to keep its credibility.
We can only hope that Middle Easterners will put their legendary sense of trade at the service of communities, just like Sarah Beydoun did in Lebanon, but also Iman Bibars in Egypt, Naif Al Mutawa in Kuwait and Ziad Al Refai in Jordan. This will prevent our NGOs to be kidnapped by political parties and the likes.
Anf if you ever pass by a Sarah’s Bag stand, please take a moment to look at the Bonjus bag, and just remember the days when you’d be eating a mankouche and drinking your Bonjus, just before jumping on the carton and making your teta jump in fright (yes, the Bonjus bag is my very own Proust Madeleine).