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The Language of Ideas and Change

Fresh from a trip to Freetown in Sierra Leone, where she met local people who are redefining both development and the country itself, our co-leader ELIZABETH WAINWRIGHT explores the language we use in the changing world of 'development'.

There are words that get thrown around a lot in the world of social good, including entrepreneurship, enterprise, charity, and innovation. I want to look at each of these overlapping ideas briefly – these are not official definitions, but rather me trying to catch the breeze on which I hear them being used (with any borrowed phrases in quote marks):

  • Charity: giving money or other resources to a cause you believe in.

  • Income Generating Activity (IGA): usually a project set up and run by or on behalf of a community or organisation, to – you guessed it – generate income.

  • Entrepreneur: a person who creates and manages an enterprise or business, usually with initiative and risk. I think the often-used term ‘change-maker’ is another softer, broader way of talking about this.

  • Social entrepreneur: someone who establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or creating social change. "Social entrepreneurs focus on transforming systems and practices that are the root causes of poverty, marginalisation, environmental deterioration and accompanying loss of human dignity. In so doing, they may set up for-profit or not-for-profit organisations".

  • Social innovation: according to the British Council, "a 'disruptive' solution to a social need – one that seeks to change the way things are done to meet the challenges facing society". This seems to focus on catalysing, and not necessarily any follow up into enterprise.

  • Social enterprise: as defined by Social Enterprise UK, is "a business that trades to tackle social problems, improve communities, life chances, or the environment". A social enterprise is a business, not a charity, which makes money and profit. "It is how they work and what they do with their profits that is different: working to make a bigger difference, reinvesting the profits they make to do more good."

Some of these words carry more of the ‘cool’ factor than others; some are ambiguous and catch-all. Terms like innovator and entrepreneur are common in worlds like technology and start-ups, but they are also increasingly used when thinking about finding solutions to local, national and global challenges.

Listening for change

Many parts of the world have lived through unpredictable political and social news recently. Here in the UK, one of the things I took from our exit from the EU (beyond the long-term implications) is that the commentating liberal elite had no idea what was happening; we had run out of experts, and we’d gone off-road, despite what we told ourselves. This was unprecedented. And I see a glimmer of the same reality in the development world. The way we’ve ‘always done things’ is not necessarily the only way, or even the right way. So we must listen – to the voting public, to rural communities, to young urban change-makers who are not just talking about and commentating on another way, but actually creating it.

Our role

Arukah Network works with brilliant individuals and groups of people who are seeking to create change where they are. Sometimes this involves charity – people donating to their cause and goals. Increasingly this will involve ‘enterprise’, or local people coming together to create something that will generate finance and energy, which they can then use to fuel their vision.

So how do we all work to create change? I am interested in giving voice to ideas that work – whether old or new, whatever field they come from, whoever came up with them, and however they are categorised. But though the power of ideas is what grabs my attention, it is what we do with these ideas that really matters. Because ideas in themselves are common and easy to come by. But ideas that have germinated and taken root and been cultivated into helpful solutions are rare. That is our role as change makers in Arukah Network – to listen for, and amplify the ideas that have, or might, transform into action.

These ideas come from people like Hamid in Sierra Leone; one of the country’s top 50 entrepreneurs, who is walking multiple paths, all of which are leading to social change. Or Robins and others in Kericho, Kenya, who are fanning the flames of collaboration and social connection, with the goal of bringing joy and exposure to great local initiatives. Or Mathews in Zambia who won the ‘most innovative health worker’ award for his creative ways of tackling difficult problems. Or Dorothy in Tanzania, who persuaded the hospital she worked at to free her up for one day a week so she could initiate palliative care work in the community.

Blurred lines

I don’t know how to categorise these people, other than as my creative, inspiring friends. They are development workers, creators, technicians, thinkers, citizens. They defy classification – they are breaking down familiar titles and positions, and rewriting what’s possible, often with significant self-doubt – but I’ve learned too that that is a hallmark of a social change-maker. Like Moses in the Bible, asking “Why me? What can I offer?”. At Arukah Network we all learn from them, and then work to fill the gaps in their connections, skills and options where we can, and through the Clusters that they are part of.

And just as categorising people and their roles feels increasingly difficult and inappropriate, the usual distinction of ‘for-profit’ and ‘not-for-profit’ also feels unhelpful. It seems the focus could more helpfully be on what we DO with money once we have it – whether it has come from charity, or from self-generated enterprise, or other business. In other words, rather than focus on the method (‘for-profit’ or ‘not-for-profit’), perhaps we could more helpfully focus on the purpose (and use a term like ‘for-good’). To what end are we seeking funds? How will we use the funds once we have them, however they are generated? Do we even need funds to create change here? As an organisation, we spend very little on ‘development projects’, other than small amounts of seed funding, facilitation, training. We operate with minimal funds, and have realised that funds spent does not correlate with change made.

Arukah Network helps facilitate a Cluster in rural Zambia. Here, the Cluster have generated small funds via a crowdfund campaign, and also via a Cluster-managed income generation scheme that has been supported with training in income generation. For very little money, I have come to see this establishment of a connected community who are creating positive change in maternal health, sanitation, nutrition and beyond. If we were a business, these people would be our ‘clients’. As a development organisation, these people are traditionally called ‘beneficiaries’. But again, this Cluster defies categorisation. They are not a ‘development project’, they are not ‘clients’ (they are leading the way), and they are not a ‘group of beneficiaries’.

I don’t really mind what we call them, so we call them what they call themselves – the ‘Chabbs’ Cluster, because they meet in a village called Chabbobboma. The point is that they are coming up with ideas and creating change in multiple ways, using their unique gifts and skills.

So – innovation, entrepreneurship, charity, enterprise... it’s all good, so long as it is based on listening to, amplifying and coming around the good things that are found everywhere, with the ultimate goal of creating health, wellbeing, happiness.

You can learn more by reading our manifesto.

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