‘You exist despite the system, not because of it.’
Adele Peek, General Manager for Indigenous Engagement at Foundation for Young Australians, took to a stage that was overwhelmingly white and male at the Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF). Peek spoke to the audience of truly recognising inequality, and looking at it with young people in the centre. ‘There is a difference between having a voice, and having an opportunity.’ We’re not standing on a level playing field and it serves only the rich minority to pretend otherwise.
Social enterprise has strong cooperative and international roots. From Scotland’s model of cooperative activity through Robert Owen, to New Zealand’s history of self-sustaining communities, governments are coming to terms with what opportunities for social enterprise exist. However, simply replacing markets doesn’t necessarily change the system.
Social enterprise needs to be about more than marketing for top conglomerates. ‘The narrative these days is about the redemption of the giver, rather than the liberation of the receiver,’ said Mike Curtin, CEO of DC Central Kitchen. Murmurs of assent rippled around the auditorium.
SEWF went back to its roots this September by celebrating its 10th anniversary back in Edinburgh, Scotland. This conference certainly excelled in its global remit, with a total of 1,400 delegates from 47 countries. 53% of these delegates were international, including 112 from Canada, 83 from New Zealand and 73 from Taiwan.
The event was full; 9 full plenaries, 14 plenaries, 2 debates, 5 masterclasses, 14 workshops and 9 participative sessions. A busy hall at the bottom of the venue was filled with social enterprise stalls, coffee stands and food.
‘Stand up if you were here ten years ago,’ asked David LePage, chair of SEWF at the opening ceremony. A fair number did, to a large round of applause. But what has happened in these ten years? Social enterprise is a long-term shift, a continuous and collaborative movement speaking of community wealth, and capital framed within the environmental, the cultural and the social. But is it happening fast enough?
Whilst a lot of the conference spoke of replacing existing markets, the fascinating pockets held the people who advocate for shifting development completely. Faraz Khan, CEO & Co-Founder of Seed Ventures and former banker, spoke of Pakistan’s ‘challenges but also opportunities.’ Human development has now become national policy in the world’s 6th most populous country; policies that shape national and social paradigms. ‘Dreamers, thinkers, philosophers – are those people part of our conversations?’ It seems vital that they are.
Over fifty years, capitalism and markets have created an economy of consumers. ‘Many years of profit being the ultimate goal has changed people, and we have become selfish,’ said Antonis Vorloou, Greece’s Special Secretary for Social and Solidarity Economy. In moving away from a consumer culture to a human supply of creators and entrepreneurs, technology plays a critical role. Even in education: ‘Schools need to be redesigned,’ stated Faraz. ‘Re-create the educational benchmarks of learning.’
This sort of storytelling is important. So many of panellists’ talks opened or closed with a well-produced and beautifully edited short video on their social mission. Yet, as Jan Owen AM, CEO of Foundation for Young Australians stated, these goals of societal upheaval and transformation exist only if we have people around the world ‘stepping into a place of being empowered’. There are millions of unemployed and chronically underemployed people around the world, ‘who did what they were told to do and are now sitting in a casual labour market’. If these underutilised people can’t get a seat at the table, we need to look at structural impediments. What exactly are our desired outcomes, and how do we get there?
This brings to mind the presentation by Helianti Hilman, Founder of Javara, which keeps Indonesia’s biodiversity and indigenous farming alive. Hilman began 10 years ago with ten farmers and eight products; now they stand with 900 products and 52,000 farmers. However, ‘Indonesia is losing 1 million farmers every year, and we are not the only country that this is happening to.’ This has forced Javara to expand into agricultural education to attract younger and future generations into farming. Social enterprise must have the future in mind as well as the present. ‘Social entrepreneurs! You cannot stop. You cannot give up. Javara has not been bankable for eight years!’
Hon. Peeni Henare, New Zealand’s Minister for the Community and Voluntary Sector, echoed this sentiment. In growing social enterprise in NZ, and growing partnerships, ‘everything must be transformational and multi-generational. This way, we always have to look to the future.’ In this way, you cannot look to a future of reduced poverty, reduced inequality and meeting of SDG targets without bringing the most disenfranchised with you.
The themes of valuing both technology and young people continued throughout the Forum. On one of the last panels on the future of business, Indy Johar of Dark Matter Labs iterated that technology ‘has liberated human capacity. Have we unlocked the full capacity of what it means to be human? Rather than just seeing humans as ‘bad robots’?’
Getting outside of the sector, demonstrating social value and learning from other movements, growing your organisation’s cultural intelligence, seeing the value in young people and their contributions – these will enlighten and inspire other individuals and organisations to take part. Technology is only as good as how we as a society choose to use, own and distribute it. Changing the world takes more than one group or individual to solve our ills. Inhabit multiple roles, multiple mindsets and remain fluid in achieving objectives. As Neil McLean, Chief Executive of the Social Enterprise Academy, put it: ‘Too often we give children answers to remember rather than a problem to solve’. The future is too important to leave young people behind.
Amy McGoldrick is the Marketing & Advertising Officer at Alliance magazine