Pierre Issa is a Schwab Foundation 2015 Social Entrepreneur of the Year Awardee.
For some years now, our societies have been experiencing declining trust in governments, maybe even in politics. Big political projects have been replaced with futile power struggles.
The real issue is that political parties are increasingly conditioned by electoral cycles, leading them to being incapable of carrying out long-term projects. They need results here and now or they will not get reelected. The implementation of long-term programs and policies, such as national recycling plans, minority inclusion strategies, or youth development projects, is far too complicated, time consuming, and sometimes unpredictable to bear fruit within one mandate.
The private sector is another influential actor that could have been able to carry out long-term societal projects. However, just as politicians are subject to election cycles, the business world is mostly unable to contemplate long-term developments — it depends on short-term gains and high returns on investment to satisfy shareholders.
So if politicians are conditioned by election cycles and the private sector by shareholders, who should be responsible for carrying out long-term societal projects? If traditional actors are no longer capable, is society doomed to develop only at the rhythm of its latest social crisis?
We are convinced that society is rapidly finding a way to fill this void. The solution is simple: Society itself is going to determine its long-term development plans and will provide its citizens with ways of living together.
The keys to carrying change
What is a societal project? A societal project, sometimes called a “vision” or a “society project,” means three things:
- Identifying the problems and needs of society.
- Setting up micro-solutions — immediate and local.
- Setting up macrosolutions — global long-term policies to sustain the solutions.
And who is better to stand for the job than grassroots-driven organizations from civil society that are willing to promote bottom-up solutions? Local associations, NGOs, social enterprises — all of these structures can meet the three listed conditions to develop a long-term vision.
It is worth noting, however, that not all structures of civil society can propose societal projects. Governmental nongovernmental organizations (GONGOs), which are created by (and for) political personalities, just like organizations that are entirely financially dependent on external entities, cannot objectively carry out a society’s vision. The political parties they follow or the politically motivated donors that fund them give their vision an obvious bias.
The only structures able to have a long-term political vision are those that are completely independent in their way of thinking. These are structures whose only influence comes from their beneficiaries — that is, civil society.
They strive above all for independence of action, which necessarily comes from ideological independence, and thus financial independence.
How can a nonprofit entity guarantee this ever-crucial independence? Contrary to common beliefs, there is no paradox here: A nonprofit organization can ensure its independence and sustainability by creating innovative economic structures. The social entrepreneurship movement is the best example of this new type of structure. This type of organization is free from influence and serves solely the interests of society as a whole. Only these conditions can foster the making of a long-term vision and the implementation of societal projects for one’s country.
Unity is strength
What are the roles of the government and the private sector?
The international tendency is to relegate the state to its regulating and policing role so the state will provide control and arbitration. The private sector still has the largest concentration of capital, so what is its interest in participating in the common effort? In an extremely condensed and media-saturated world, one ought to say what one thinks and do what one says. Any private enterprise that fails to follow this global trend will sooner or later end up snubbed by its consumers. The private sector will want to participate and will be best positioned to provide financing for large societal projects.
To sum up, building on each one’s capacities, the new role model will be as follows:
- The vision of the civil society
- The regulation of the state
- The financing of the private sector
This means that a society’s ability to put in place a long-term vision is based on these three actors understanding and recognizing their respective roles. Each actor needs to assume its responsibilities and act accordingly. There will not be three boxes — one for the government, one for the private sector, and one for the actors of the civil society — that merely interact together. There will be one vision and one common project for society as a whole.
NGOs that are financially and politically independent will provide the long-term societal vision, the private sector will bring investments, and the state will recenter its role to control and arbitration. That is why and how tomorrow’s social action will be based on public-private partnerships.
An easy example of such a merging of the three sectors can be seen in one of Greenpeace’s stories. Greenpeace is an NGO with a strong message that developed over the years of a vision of what society should be and how it should behave. In 1992, true to its vision and in response to an identified problem, Greenpeace launched Greenfreeze, a natural refrigerant free of F-gases (or HFCs). Big household brands, including Bosch, Haier, Panasonic, LG, Miele, Electrolux, Whirlpool, and Siemens, soon adopted and began selling this product. In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally approved the use of Greenfreeze technology to replace polluting F-gases in U.S. refrigerators and freezers. With this initiative, which is only a small part of Greenpeace’s program, the three societal actors ended up on the same line and made it possible for this innovation to be sustainable.
Few political actors can propose and implement long-term social projects, and companies are focused on developing their own business before developing society as a whole. Civil society, while still lacking cohesion and means, has matured enough to take charge. With the support of the state and the private sector, it can bring a new dynamic to social action. Only this assembling solution will allow real societal progress, and the growing number of social enterprises is proof that this solution is not a utopia, but a reality.
This post first appeared on Medium. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Pierre Issa is co-founder and CEO of Arcenciel, Lebanon, and a Schwab Foundation 2015 Social Entrepreneur of the Year Awardee.
Image: A man walks along an empty street near the central financial district in Hong Kong. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.