By Donella Meadows
–December 18, 1997–
The idea Bill Drayton began working on sixteen years ago seemed far-out then and seems farther out now. The talents required for entrepreneurship, he realized, need not be applied only to business. Entrepreneurship for public gain is even more admirable than for private gain and even more necessary.
“Public entrepreneurs,” says Drayton, “are rare men and women who possess the same exceptional levels of vision, creativity and determination that allow top business entrepreneurs to create new industries. However they devote these qualities to introducing new solutions to social problems” — social problems such as poverty, protection of human rights, public education and health services, regenerating the environment, and constructing economies that serve people, rather than the other way around.
Private entrepreneurs are usually richly rewarded with money, power, and respect. Public entrepreneurs may be marginalized, accused of acting only for private gain (by those who act only for private gain), and occasionally jailed or shot. But not often, says Drayton. They are savvy, realistic, more interested in change than in martyrdom.
To provide venture capital for public innovators, Drayton founded an organization called Ashoka. (The name comes from an ancient emperor of India renowned for his wisdom, tolerance, and extraordinary creativity in furthering social welfare.)
Ashoka Fellows are often young and unknown, but they are busily launching ideas and organizations for the public good. Ashoka finds them everywhere and helps them through stipends, positive publicity, and a growing professional network. Just hearing about the work of Ashoka Fellows restores one’s faith in the human race.
Michal Kravcik, for example, was a hydrologist in the Academy of Sciences of what is now Slovakia. In communist days he was not allowed to oppose the government’s plans for building huge dams. In his newly free country he can sound off. He founded Blue Alternative, a group that encourages people to take charge of their own watersheds.
Blue Alternative builds checkdams and small reservoirs, restores wetlands, repairs leaks in public water mains, and plants forests. Kravcik has proved the efficacy of these measures with a test site in the mountains of Slovakia, where the government proposed in 1992 to build a dam to assure water supplies to nearby cities. Kravcik showed that local communities could produce as much reservoir capacity and flood control as the dam with less energy, less disturbance of nature and settlements, more jobs, and at only 20 percent of the cost.
Now the region’s residents, armed with facts, figures, and experience, regularly argue water planning with government officials. In a recent referendum 98 percent of them voted against the dam. In a formerly socialist country, this is a breakthrough not only in environmental management, but in the practice of democracy.
Elna Kotze of South Africa, mother of six, fixed up an old bus with her husband and started Kotze Tours, which took mainly white South Africans to see the wildlife of Namibia. The business eventually built up to 12 buses, but the wildlife was disappearing.
Feeling the need to do something, somewhere, Elna started the Ukuzwana Project. The Ukuzwana region consists of 2.4 million acres of grassland, rich water resources and wildlife, including birds found nowhere else in the world. Uncontrolled forestry has been drying up the water, uncontrolled grazing has caused soil erosion, and dirty industries have been moving in.
Elna organized all the stakeholders in the region, from farmers to business people to eco-tourism guides, into forums, each centered on a watershed. The people did their own research on resources and land use patterns. They began to see the trade-offs between short-term exploitation of the land and sustainable uses that could provide benefits forever.
They worked out their own land-use plans. They began to combat erosion, restore forests, and teach management practices that attract rare birds. They successfully challenged a commercial pine plantation, exposing the hidden costs for local communities. The Ukuzwana Project now conducts workshops to teach sustainable and profitable land management techniques to farmers, ranchers, foresters, and above all, government officials.
Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo, called Pati, was a music teacher in Mexico City until the air started making her sick. She and her family moved back to her husband’s home region of Sierra Gorda in central Mexico. They found there a terribly poor population, polluted water, disappearing forests, eroding soil.
Pati swung into action. She founded a grassroots movement called the Sierra Gorda Ecological Group. Volunteers give classes in environmental education in 150 schools. Pati has become the star of a popular weekly radio show in which she provides advice, exposes environmental abuses, and tells uplifting stories. The group has planted more than two million trees; the rule is that any person can harvest as many trees as he or she planted eight years earlier. The group also has started successful businesses making composting latrines and energy-saving woodstoves.
There are more than 800 Ashoka Fellows like these, and about 100 new ones are chosen each year. One of the booklets describing them points out that the power of these innovators can extend far beyond their home places, simply through example. “This volume,” it says, “is a valuable resource for people thinking about their futures and possible careers, for those who want to know where the cutting edge in a social field is, and for those interested in the current rapid emergence of social entrepreneurship. Please consider giving it to a school or public library or to a young person you respect.”
(For more information, the global Ashoka office is at 1700 North Moore Street, Suite 1920, Arlington VA 22209, telephone 703-527-8300.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997