The Social Entrepreneurship Sector… We are all startups again!

By: Kevin Lee

Early on in 2020, at the height of anxieties around lockdown and the pandemic, we got in touch with Ashoka Fellow Kevin Lee to understand what this historic moment would mean for social entrepreneurs. Written in May of 2020, many of Kevin Lee’s points still hold a sense of urgency that we cannot hope for the world to return to the way it was before. Social entrepreneurs are and will still lead the charge in shifting mindsets and approaches. As we near the one-year mark since the beginning of community quarantines, this piece captures a lot of what was to happen during that moment and time (and what still needs to happen today for us to fully recover from the effects of the pandemic!)

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There is no post-COVID-19 world in the foreseeable future, but we do have to face a post-shutdown world. Social Entrepreneurs and the Non-Government Social Impact Sector as a whole are critical for an inclusive recovery by communities, the prevention of an overloaded health system, and support for the government at all levels in their functions as duty bearers.

Unlike disasters that the Philippines are familiar with, the damage is not a loss of assets, infrastructure, or crops, but the damage from the pandemic is economically and socially devastating nonetheless. To prevent large loss of life, we’ve had to economically shutdown the country which, compounded by the global shutdown, has resulted in massive economic disruption, job losses not seen since the great depression, and governments borrowing large percentages of their GDP to finance social safety nets and economic stimulus packages.

The pharma industry is fast-tracking vaccines. However, rollout is a long way off and we have to limit health impacts, while maintaining a functional economy. We know that quarantining and good hygiene behavior limit spread. These steps have slowed the progression of the disease to where it is somewhat manageable by the health system, but at a great economic cost.

Pandemics are scary, and with modern media, the proliferation of non-fact-driven information has made it more difficult for communities and individuals to understand real risk, how to properly mitigate that risk, and how to avail of social safety net programs. Food security, personal safety, access to general and reproductive health services, business continuity, access to water and sanitation, and continuation of education have all been compromised, losing many of the poverty alleviation gains of the last two decades.

We as social entrepreneurs are now in a new world. Community priorities have changed back to survival, and our normal ways of working are potentially harmful. Our funding from traditional sources is shrinking. Our timeframe for scalable success has been reduced from years to months. Our operating framework has been destroyed, so we are back to “startup mode.”

Social Enterprises are created to solve an issue from a certain period of time in a certain context. As a large percentage of the population moves into extreme poverty, the priority of these issues may change. Organizations will have to look at their relevance and reimagine themselves in the new future. Their experience and networking are necessary for the challenges facing the country but they may have a new focus.

Behavior change by communities and organizations will be the key for the country to thrive. Traditional awareness-raising needs to be replaced by behavior change programming. The behaviors we are changing will be difficult due to overcrowding and because these go against our basic human communal behavior of social interaction. Communities must understand how their new behaviors will reduce their risks. This is not a temporary change in behavior but will be new social norms.

As Social Entrepreneurs and NGO changemakers are reimagining their focus and implementation, there is also a new financial reality. More traditional fund sources such as United Nations, Overseas Development Agencies, International NGOs, foundations, corporations, etc., will shrink and become performance-based. We will have to articulate clear outcomes and outputs to set the tone on what high performance is and explain why we are investing in less tangible deliverables such as behavior change and capacity development for Barangay and City/Municipal LGUs to enable them to cope with the future in the COVID-19. We will also have to expand and diversify the humanitarian/development economy and challenge this economy on how the money is spent in recovery efforts and include strengthening our organizations.

So what could these products look like?

· Systems and capacity strengthening for LGU officials so that they can collect and analyze data. This information is used by the national government for informed decisions. It can also inform local officials of their current situation and gives them the ability to concretely inform their constituency on their situation.

· Behavior change programming so that LGUs and their constituents can modify behaviors within their local context while understanding why they are doing this and what the rewards will be. This includes clear messaging and transparency so as to mobilize communities as rights holders to work towards a collective goal.

· Building systems to analyze the impacts of the new behaviors on the abilities of communities to survive and thrive. This needs to consider vulnerabilities of marginalized sectors and understand the concept of equity vs equality for targeting of government and non-government social safety net programming.

· Development of a new local economy replacing disrupted sectors, leveraging the strengths of those sectors, and providing opportunities for marginalized and vulnerable groups so that they can move out of the lower decile economic groups.

· Expansion and improvement of basic service delivery for health, wellness, water, and sanitation services to lower decile groups.

· Education products and outreach to match the new normal and provide hope to children, youth, and parents for the future of their families.

We have to not just adapt, but we have to accept this challenge as a moral imperative. Without systemic type changes, we cannot prevent the loss of all the poverty reduction gains over the last two decades. Our poorest communities are no less valuable than those living in the towers of Makati and BGC. Increasing the number of people living on less than 2 meals a day should be unacceptable to all of us. We have the tools and resources to work with the government to make this happen. It will not be done with pilots and small steps, but will require our sector to take big swings at the problem, always look to scale, adapt, and change to meet the challenges. The world as we knew it will not return, the future is now!

About the Author

Kevin Lee was educated in New Zealand, where he earned a Bachelor of Engineering (Mechanical). After graduating, he worked as a consulting mechanical engineer, specializing in heavy industry in the north island of New Zealand. From 1995 to 2001, he worked in the steel industry in Georgia, U.S.A. After spending two years working as an industrial emission control equipment project manager, Kevin joined the Peace Corps as a water and sanitation volunteer in the Philippines. After his term was finished, he stayed in the Philippines and co-founded A Single Drop for Safe Water. ASDSW/SDCS is now 5 offices with close to 80 staff working throughout the Philippines. He was awarded the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014.

Featuring impact stories from the Philippine community of Ashoka, the world’s largest network of social innovators.

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