Obama says it best: Success comes from within

One of the great delights of writing this blog is the feedback I receive from young social entrepreneurs.  I wrote the following  for SEE Change, an on line journal started for social entrepreneurs.  I am reprinting here with the encouragement to check out this issue of See Change and consider becoming a subscriber.

Shortly after Peter Wahome’s family moved from central Kenya to the densely populated Kibera
neighbourhood of Nairobi, he ventured into the downtown core. There,
this young teenager literally hatched a scheme that altered the course
of his life and, ultimately, thousands of others across Kenya.

stuffed a male and female pigeon under his shirt, endured their
struggles and scratches on the bus ride home, arriving bloodied but
determined to breed them. He went on to become a successful bird
breeder. This earned him enough money to rent a small room where he
could study in peace, away from his 10 siblings, his father, and his
father’s many wives. Peter went on to complete several university
degrees, study community economic development in England, found Crafts of Africa, become an Ashoka fellow and, shortly before my daughter Catherine and I met him in Nairobi, launch People to People Tourism, Kenya.

accomplishments include fair trade pricing and employment to artisans
working in 80 self-help craft producer groups, and fostering
community-based eco and cultural tourism. He has created their own
distribution and marketing infrastructure. The by-products, which Peter
is equally intentional about, include reducing exploitation and
conserving the natural and cultural heritage of Kenya’s people.

is impossible for me to imagine any outside agency or development
worker teaching or inspiring Peter to do what he did. Peter’s story
reinforces what I have come to appreciate as a central tenet of
community organizing, social innovation and social enterprise: people
everywhere are creative, resilient, and capable of solving their own
problems and meeting their own challenges. No matter the circumstances,
unless we recognize and support local leadership at the same time as
addressing immediate challenges our good intentions and interventions
will fail.

opportunities for people to solve their own problems strengthens local
resilience. Resilience is in turn strengthened by nurturing
relationships of mutual support, reciprocity and trust. The social
fabric of a culture is not lumber and nails, but belonging.

means tapping into everyone’s desire to be helpful to others; ignoring
cultural mythologies and stigma about inability, laziness, and
desperation; focusing on everyone’s capabilities; nurturing joy and
celebration; being patient – understanding that decades of exploitation
wilts local capacity and will not change overnight; and appreciating the
negative consequences of interventions by well-meaning outside
professionals and aid workers.

This is consistent with the thinking and practice of my friend John McKnight, who created the Asset Based Community Development Institute.
John has taught the world to see the gifts, assets and abilities of
people who have been labelled, marginalized, ignored and excluded.
Recently, the ABCD Institute teamed up with the Coady International
Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, an underappreciated Canadian
gem, which has been addressing global poverty and injustice for fifty
years. See
From Clients to Citizens: Communities Changing the Course of Their Own Development, Alison Mathie & Gordon Cunningham, (Eds.), 2008.

Similarly, Ashoka founder Bill Drayton
has built a global social enterprise movement on the premise that every
country in the world has an abundance of ingenious, talented social
entrepreneurs with solutions for local, regional and global challenges.

am also aware of a number of young Canadian social entrepreneurs who
have designed their organizations around similar assumptions. These

Daphne Nederhorst and SAWA Global, which
identifies talented leaders in the world’s fifty poorest countries and
supports them to spread and scale up their poverty fighting efforts.

Jennifer Fraser and Mobile Movement, which uses mobile phone technology to provides micro finance to young entrepreneurs in Peter Wahome’s Kibera.

Shawn Smith and Global Agents of Change, which funds scholarships and provides micro credit for students in the developing world.

Jennifer Corriero and Taking It Global,
which uses social media to build a global learning community among
young people. One example is their new partnership with the Pearson
Fellowship for Social Innovation, which will support youth-developed
projects addressing the UN’s Millenium Development Goals.

There is a
common thread running through their collective work. Here are their
common design principles, which could usefully inform interventions, practices, aid, resources, donations, and volunteerism:

  • Assume the necessary leadership, capability, talent, determination and expertise exists locally.
  • Strengthen
    the resilient, adaptive capacity of people to solve their own problems.
    Local leaders must direct all outside intervention and resources.
  • DO
    all interventions, either intentionally or unintentionally, do not erode
    the sense of belonging that clearly exists. This is the equivalent of
    the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath to: above all, Do No Harm.
  • Seek
    out and support local creativity and innovation. This is the basis of
    the Ashoka model. Fifty-two percent of Ashoka Fellows have changed
    national policy and seventy-five percent have changed the pattern in their field within five years of election.

Having faith and
confidence in local entrepreneurs is easier said than done. This
rhetoric has been around for decades. In practice, it is forgotten,
ignored or creatively reinterpreted. Thus, the cycle of aid and
dependency continues. What gives me confidence that things are changing
is the work of younger social entrepreneurs who deeply understand their
limitations. So does this recent statement from President Obama who
concluded his conversation with young African leaders invited to the White House in early August by asserting:

so when you go back and you talk to your friends and you say, what was
the main message the President had — we are rooting for your success,
and we want to work with you to achieve that success, but ultimately
success is going to be in your hands. And being a partner means that we
can be there by your side, but we can’t do it for you.

Coincidentally, Obama was trained as a community organizer
by John McKnight, so one hopes his experience will inspire a new
generation of practice. Enabling the Peter Wahomes of this world to
flourish should be intentional and strategic, not haphazard and

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  1. Allyson Hewitt

    It is an interesting take on what the cynics would say is government abdicating responsibility. Sitting in Hong Kong I have had the opportunity to read the local papers and a recent article on promoting philanthropy among the ultra rich of China reinforces that there is a strong expectation that government will look after our social problems and therefore there is no need for philanthropy. I believe there will always be a role for government in addressing social problems but in order to make significant change we need to mobilize the best in all of us, from all our institutions and from ourselves.

  2. nford@plan.ca

    Thanks Al, another great blog to start my day…..better than coffee!

  3. Al Etmanski

    Thanks Allyson. I agree, this is not an argument for government to abdicate its role and responsibilities, nor philanthropy, nor the rest of us. It is however about how we provide that support. The lessons are all around us if we pay attention. Alas we often repeat the mistakes of the past which is why I am interested in understanding the common design principles for successful support and intervention.

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