The Community Development work program of Centennial College is designed in a way that truly makes our students social entrepreneurs and community leaders. Community development theories, practices, communications, project management, resource mobilization –all these knowledge areas are covered through this program. Recently, I had the opportunity to be part of this program facilitating a course titled “Business Essentials”. One of the major objectives of this course is to identify ways to promote entrepreneurship within the community development practice. While discussing Entrepreneurship, I have seen immense enthusiasm from students regarding the concept of social entrepreneurship. Some students want to become social entrepreneurs, and others would like to support community business ideas. I am very motivated by the ideas of my students and it has encouraged me to write this reflective article on my social entrepreneurship experience, especially my work with 2,000 poor and marginalized women of Bangladesh through the Grameen Bank model.
Let me share how we have defined Social Entrepreneurship in our class. Social Entrepreneurship is an innovative and social value driven activity that can occur within or across the non-profit, business, or government sectors. According to the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, it is about applying practical, innovative and sustainable approaches to benefit society in general, with an emphasis on those who are marginalized and poor.
Who is a social entrepreneur? We have discussed in the class that a social entrepreneur is an individual, group, network, organization, or alliance of organizations that seeks sustainable and large-scale change. Social entrepreneurs drive social innovation and transformation in various fields including education, health, environment and enterprise development. While providing examples of social entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurs, I have provided the examples of Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus and poor women of Bangladesh. I have shared their stories because of my role as an International Development worker. Most importantly, I encourage our students to establish their identity as global citizens through learning and sharing on international community development practices.
Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus & Grameen Bank
Grameen Bank provides poor people mainly women with small loans to start businesses and lift their families out of poverty. The microcredit has spread to every continent and benefited over 100 million families during last 30 years (Yunus Centre, 2016). The Grameen Bank is based on the voluntary formation of small groups of five people to provide mutual, morally binding group guarantees in lieu of the collateral required by conventional banks (Gramen Bank, 2016). The loan borrowers utilize their credits in paddy husking, lime-making, manufacturing such as pottery, weaving, and garment sewing, storage and marketing and transport services. Through this small businesses, women earned income and raised their status in family and community.
I would like to share a quote of Professor Yunus about his initiative Garmeen Bank and microcredit.
“… credit without collateral is a fundamental right of the poor. Our success with this in my own country has been widely replicated all over the world including in some of the richest countries; and the Nobel Peace Prize 2006 for Grameen Bank and myself is one recognition of that success” (Yunus Centre, 2016).
From Slum Dwellers to Entrepreneurs
In 1998, I started my social service work at ActionAid Bangladesh. This international agency used to work with poor and marginalized communities in Asia, Africa and Latin American countries through an integrated program approach. Income generation, adult literacy, primary health care, primary education and advocacy etc. were key program components in a long term project (5-to 10 years) of ActionAid. With an aim to help poor slum dwellers, Dhaka Urban project started in 1995 and adopted Grameen’s model of the microfinance program in order to organize poor women who were mostly confined with household work (lack of mobility/ community participation) and did not have opportunity to participate in income generating activities. When I joined ActionAid, I found 2,200 women were already registered with the microfinance program, and most of them engaged in business. A Community Organizer used to meet 4 to 5 groups of women (20 to 25 women) on a weekly basis, distribute loans, and collect repayment and savings. As a Program staff, I occasionally visited weekly group meetings, learned about their business schemes, their success and challenges. I was so pleased to see the transformation of these women entrepreneurs. I observed how confidently women were managing money and making decisions for their business, or investment, or purchasing property. I found on many occasions that the husbands were assisting their entrepreneurial wives as ‘helper’ which was quite uncommon in that social structure.
While conducting a mid- term review of the project in 1999, we came to know that over 25% of women entrepreneurs purchased land either on the periphery of the capital city Dhaka or in their villages. On the other hand, the women were very keen to send their children to the school which was a challenge for urban slum dwellers. Children of poor families often dropout from school before completing their grade Five. I also found that group members were mindful about their and family members health and they started seeking preventative, primary and curative healthcare services. This is a great example how access to and control over financial resources by women can contribute to the overall wellbeing of their family.
Social Entrepreneur to Community Leader
Most of the group members of the microcredit program were illiterate, and only a few women had primary education. As part of the integrated program approach, ActionAid organized adult literacy circles named Reflect (an innovative approach to adult learning and social change) for women. The program not only provided women basic literacy skills but also engaged them as a community to address various social issues such domestic violence, drug abuse and gambling.
In 2000, ActionAid had a change in their program delivery approach and they started withdrawing from direct operations and closing some programs. As part of a strategic shift in program, the senior management wanted to close the operation of the Dhaka Urban project where over 2,000 women entrepreneurs started to realize their dreams and their families were coming out from poverty. When the community organizers were informed of the project closure decision, the women members were very disappointed and they wanted to meet the Senior Management Team. During this time, there were tensions in the organization and the key project staff including project Head, program coordinator and finance manager left ActionAid. So, the responsibility came to me to deal with 2,000 members and the senior management of ActionAid and resolve the conflict.
As a note, I maintained a good relationship with both women group members and 20 community organisers and their supervisors. I always considered myself as ‘one of them’ and ‘part of the community’. The group members usually found me busy discussing community issues and bringing new programs. They used to find me in their slums providing support and solidarity during flood, fire or when there was a threat of eviction. In fact, my involvement with the community allowed me to build trust and relationships with them. I started listening to field staff and some women leaders and I communicated community concerns to the ActionAid senior management, with emphasis on the impact the sudden project closure would have on the lives of 2000 families and their businesses. At last, we organized a dialogue session with senior management in a large community space where 800 women participated. It was a great moment for me to obverse how the women leaders raised their voices and put up resistance when the agency did not listen to their concerns.
ActionAid provided education to groups of women based on Paolo Ferry‘s community education principles and Robert Chambers’ participatory development approach, but the agency did not realize t how much the community had become empowered. The women group provided two major demands: a) ActionAid should continue program at least for one more year, because sudden project closure will impact their business and their community, b) The microfinance program should not be closed, rather it should be handed over to a local and trusted agency where their savings would be safe and the program sustained . Due to the increased resistance from women entrepreneurs, ActionAid accepted their demands. The microfinance program still continues through a local partner called Assistance for Slum Dwellers and at present it has 2,600 members.
Centennial College is committed to transformative learning and it inspires students to become global citizens. I am so pleased to work with Centennial College. Here I have the opportunity to share my stories of working with various communities across the globe. I encourage students to share their experiences. All these learning approaches make our learning environment very inclusive, interesting, engaging and life oriented. Thank you Centennial College- you are truly a great education institution.
And Thank you for your time!
ActionAid International (2015, November 25). Retrieved from http://www.actionaid.org/
Assistance for Slum Dwellers (2015, November 25). Retrieved from http://www.asd.org.bd/ASDS-ON-GOING-PROJECT
Bielefeld, W. (2014), Social Entrepreneurship: An Evidence-Based Approach to Creating. Social Value. Wiley, Somerset.
Grameen Bank (2015, November 25). Retrieved from http://grameen.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=25&Itemid=169
The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, (2015, November 25). Retrieved from http://www.schwabfound.org/
Reflect (2015, November 25). Retrieved from http://www.reflect-action.org/
Article written by
Mahbub Hasan (Ph.D)
Faculty, Community Services Department, Centennial College