Real Change & A Rotary Challenge

Its 6:30am on a work week in Nairobi, Kenya. East Africa is facing possibly the worst drought in 60 years, and I work for the leading social enterprise working with smallholder farmers in the region. I put those together in the same sentence, because they are sadly hypocritical statements. Why is it that East Africa is a largely agriculture based society, has the land and labor to feed nearly all of Africa, yet it still falls into famine, year after year after year. As we speak about the drought in East Africa, little ol’ Zimbabwe tip toes the line, quietly falling into starvation. Zimbabwe, a country that used to be the bread basket of the South is now facing famine, why is all this happening? Ok, first of all there is a list of reasons that could go on and on,water, HIV/AIDS, corruption, politics, war…. Yes, that is true. But the other reason is a lack of long term investment and commitment to small scale growth. African farmers are some of the most efficient with the meager resources they have, resulting in them also being some of the world’s least productive farmers. Africa went from being a net exporter of food in the 70’s to now having over a quarter of the food imported being Food Aid, from growing to starving in a few decades. Yes, charity and food aid is necessary to alleviate the mass starvation that occurs in situations like we are seeing now in East Africa, and soon in Zimbabwe and Uganda. It is true that when drought has made it impossible to grow crops, people will need to be provided with aid. But we have failed, over and over again in creating a long term solution. If famine keeps happening, year after year for decades, then there is something deeply flawed in how we are going about creating change.  And while the current famine is one example, what I’m about to discuss is applicable to situations and places all over the world, from inner cities in California, to rural farmers in Pakistan to a large portion of the population in Sub Saharan Africa.

Development and aid have become about isolated projects, and while you see rhetoric against this, their results are very isolated as well. While I am a firm believer that a little bit can go a long way, especially in Africa where if everyone has a little, that really equals a whole lot. But we are not investing enough in people’s ability to grow. We are not thinking about solutions that ease the strains of financially improving the life of whole communities. What I’m talking about is the need for the private sector to create real lasting change. The same way it did in America, Europe, Asia and South America, to name a few. But yes we have to be careful, Chinese investment in Africa has shown that a no strings attached policy can improve communities but stifle good politics, American investment has shown that strings attached can delay improvement but highlight the need for good politics, well that’s not what I’m talking about and that’s not quite where I see the change.

I believe that Social Enterprise is the solution, or at least something that has great potential to pull people out of poverty around the world. Social Enterprise, which is a market based approach to a social issue, takes the skills of management, finance and entrepreneurship developed in the business sector and using the heart and compassion of the non profit sector, applies those skills to a business or enterprise that’s ultimate mission serves for good. While there are many blends and combinations of social enterprises and social entrepreneurship, I believe the ones that do not rely completely on donor funding are forced to become the most desirable, the most needed for a given area, thus having the most potential to enact change.

I want to highlight one organization which embodies Social Enterprise, without being fully aware of it, and has great potential to enact visible long term change, and that is Rotary (Foundation, International, everthing.) I am talking about all the clubs and members and grants given around the world. Rotary is (I believe) the largest network of business professionals in the world, who have a core set of ethics and beliefs that focus heavily on making the world a better place. Rotary has exchange programs for high school and college age students, for groups of professionals and Centers that focus solely on Peace and Conflict resolution. They embody what it means to do good in the world. Yet I will challenge them to do more. To really leverage the immense amount of business and professional knowledge that sits around that table once a week amid friends, both laughing and speaking seriously about how to make the world a better place. I believe they can do more. The reason the projects of Rotary are so successful and well run is because they have some of the best in the community doing the management and planning. It would be as if each project from an NGO had CEO’s and CFO’s running it, wow wouldn’t that be great.

But it is usually what we have right in front of us that is most difficult for us to see. The potential of Rotarians to infuse a sustainable business mindset into each and every project they do is large, but still greater is for them to focus on private sector and business solutions. There is no better group to see and plan for sustainable change or understand  the markets or professional aspect of development more than Rotary. They are successful women and men because they have understood the role that the private sector plays in creating wealth and they have also seen the role that ethics plays in having a successful life. Don’t get me wrong, as I advocate for private sector change, I do understand the dangers of business. The exploitation, especially in developing countries, the corporations destroying mom and pop stores and small farmers, the horrible things that have come out of our own private sector rise. But that is why Rotary is different, they are women and men who understand the ethics of business, the need for a set of positive standards and beliefs across a community, for crying out loud they have the Four Way Test!  Rotarians are the business partners that can create change without the corruption, exploitation and purging of resources so common in Africa and many other places around the world (I’m highlighting Africa only because I live here at the moment, this need is present around the world.) Rotarians have done wonderful things, but by embracing Social Enterprise and becoming a leader in that sector (like Ashoka and Skoll) they have can create change that the world so desperately needs.

I write this as a person who has been a recipient of so many of Rotary’s good deeds. I participated in their Leadership camps, Youth Exchange Program, Ambassadorial Scholar Program and many other smaller projects around the world. I have seen and continue to see the impact Rotary has, but I am also a firm believer in always challenging ourselves to do better, in embracing ideas and solutions that we somehow overlooked and in reaching out to the community that can make a difference, not standing by and waiting.

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