What Does it Take to Bring About Change?

by Julia Roig   March 19, 2015

Celebrating Women Social Entrepreneurs

Many women have found successful careers in the social sector, combining an entrepreneurial spirit with a commitment to the social good. As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, and we observe Women’s History Month here in the U.S., these commemorations mark a specific time to recognize the leadership and contribution of women all over the world, and acknowledge the work that still needs to be done to empower all girls, ensure equal opportunities and respect the rights of all women.

Unfortunately there are many parts of the globe where women are still viewed as second-class citizens, and their contributions to their societies politically and economically are hampered. Unlocking this potential requires large-scale change, which implies a disruption of the status quo, and a sustained effort amongst many to bring about a shift in mentalities and in systems within a society. What does it take to bring about that kind of change? At Partners for Democratic Change, we invest in women as social entrepreneurs, believing that having an institutional platform for collective action and cooperative advocacy allows women throughout the world to serve as effective change agents.

As a recent article in Forbes by Ashoka suggests, social entrepreneurs are distinct within the civil society sector because they approach social problems using business approaches and a partnership model. Social entrepreneurs prioritize relationships, often focusing on the power of networks and they apply an investment approach to their programs to demonstrate clear results and a return on that investment. These are powerful approaches to achieve the kind of societal change needed to unlock the potential and empower the leadership of women in the world.

Change Requires More Than Protest. There are many courageous activists who ignite protest to jar societies into change. Both men and women all over the world are using creative, non-violent tactics out of frustration with leaders and indignation for the lack of respect for their basic human rights (as highlighted in the new book, “Blueprint for Revolution”). People from all walks of life and both genders can find common cause during the sometimes “euphoric” moments of solidarity found in mass protest, but what happens after the rally or march is over? Once different people have been disturbed by a debate and are primed for concrete action, social entrepreneurs are one of the key actors who can carry on the hard work of sustaining public interest and demonstrating progress towards reforms. For example, after the mass protests in Tunisia that toppled the former authoritarian regime, one of the key issues facing the country was unemployment and dealing with the large informal sector, which affects many Tunisian female workers. Together with the Global Fairness Initiative (GFI), Partners has been working with amazing women in GFI’s TILI project, such as country director Asma Ben Hassen Darragi and Chema Gargouri, the president of a leading NGO, TAMSS. These women and their teams have been doing the hard work of convening a wide national dialogue with industry leaders, labor unions, civil society, and government to make recommendations for bringing informal workers into the formal system. The leadership provided by these Tunisian women produced concrete policy recommendations that have now been adopted at the highest levels. But more importantly they have created relationships between sectors (often at odds) who now know they are able to work together productively and peacefully.

Change Requires Finding Connections Within Complexity. A recent Harvard Business Review article highlighted the fact that effective social entrepreneurs recognize the complexity of systems when trying to solve social problems. Many women are particularly good at serving as conveners to bring people together in order to address the root causes of a problem and highlighting the interconnection between different issues. In Nigeria for example where there is increasing action to address the rise in violent extremists and a global outcry over the abduction of the Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, one local organization, the CLEEN Foundation, led by Kemi Asiwaju is making a difference. (See Partners’ recent blog interview with Kemi here). Kemi and her team are working closely with government agencies to increase the transparency and accountability of the security and justice sectors, and anti-corruption agencies in Nigeria. Understanding that endemic corruption has an impact on citizen security, CLEEN is shining a light on the national budgets of security and anti-corruption agencies, while promoting new technologies to allow citizens to report corruption abuses by the police. CLEEN Foundation is working with a range of institutions, making connections between issues and bringing together different actors and tools to support better security for Nigerians.

Change Requires Building New and Uncomfortable Alliances. The WEvolve campaign has highlighted that in order to empower women worldwide, we also need to focus on empowering men. Successful social entrepreneurs reach out to those who do not naturally come together, and bringing in men to the women’s empowerment movement is such a needed alliance. Our colleagues at Partners-Yemen have been working with thousands of women around the country to build their leadership and conflict resolution skills and to give them a voice in local governance and in national political decisions. But it has always been important to our Yemeni colleagues that men are also brought in to this effort to support the local programs.

Such “uncomfortable alliances” for those in the social sector can also include working closely with the private sector. In very factionalized environments there can be mutual mistrust between business or political elites and civic activists, and it is often difficult to find common ground or a willingness to collaborate on social problems. The director of Partners-Albania, Juliana Hoxha, has helped to bridge this divide by actively promoting effective Corporate Social Responsibility in the country through training and enabling legislation, and by creating a prominent annual prize that recognizes outstanding local philanthropy. In a region that still struggles to develop a strong civil society capable of contributing to the political, economic and social development in the Balkans, Juliana’s role in bringing in local businesses into the sustainability equation has been essential. (To hear more from Juliana, read her blog interview here)

Eva Rodriguez, Director of Transformando Conflictos - Partners El Salvador

Eva Rodriguez, Director of Transformando Conflictos – Partners El Salvador

Change Requires Global/Local/Together. As we recognize and honor the work of women all over the world to make changeusing new, innovative strategies and tools, we also know that there is a clear role for international organizations to demonstrate practical solidarity with them. We promote their work on a global stage, we can support sharing experiences across regions and we can provide moral and technical support for their hard efforts. In this spirit, Partners is now kicking off a new global initiative with the GE Foundation, the Peace Nexus Foundation and the Seattle International Foundation to explore how these entrepreneurial practices can be better applied in conflict environments and in countries with severe governance challenges. Collaborating with women like Eva Rodriguez from Transformando Conflictos Partners-El Salvador, and many others who are committed to tackling social change within an increasingly alarming security crisis, Partners will be working with our network and others to capture how new funding models and innovative solutions can support these women as well as their male colleagues in bringing about needed change.