When Camfed, an international non-profit, wanted to implement a system for children to report abuse across all Zambian schools, some expected an uphill battle.
“Before that, there was no school policy related to protecting children from abuse,” said Barbara Chilangwa, Zambia’s former Permanent Secretary for Education. “The feeling at the time, when I was in government, was a bit suspicious of NGOs – as though they had a hidden agenda. There was a lot of mistrust.”
But Camfed had a distinct advantage – founded in 1993 by Ann Cotton, it had been working in Zambia for six years before it started lobbying for the policy.
The non-profit aims to help girls escape poverty through education. It provides school fees, uniforms and supplies for girls in deprived areas, allowing them to carry on their education from primary school through to college. It only recruits teachers and administrators from within Africa, to avoid outsiders coming into the country and telling girls – and governments – what to do.
Camfed began lobbying the Ministry of Education in 2007 at the grassroots level, petitioning families, educators, police and politicians for their support. With community outreach and workshops, Camfed communicated the importance of ushering in safe, effective systems for reporting child abuse.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk among social entrepreneurs – a kind of irritation with government”
“One of the reasons we have been so successful in our work with government is we have an approach that is highly practical – we support the education of girls, not only as advocates but practitioners,” said Cotton, the president of Camfed International. “We enable large numbers of girls to go to school through practical engagement and financial investment. That gives us a lot of leverage in talking to government.”
The idea behind partnering with social entrepreneurs is that government can be bureaucratic and unwieldy. Socially conscious entrepreneurs build sustainable organisations – either as a non-profit or a for-profit venture – all the while driving change through innovation. Their work can serve as a test drive for government, which may want to scale solutions if they prove successful. In return, public sector support lends legitimacy to entrepreneurs, who often accomplish more working alongside government.
However, there are criticisms of social entrepreneurship to take into account. As the term is loosely defined, any business or organisation can label itself as socially conscious, with little clarity around what kind of effect they are having.
Measuring impact is also difficult to do without any standardised processes. Social entrepreneurs are said to measure success in social change – but there are no recognised yardstick for doing so (in the US, the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation is working on an assessment). And, as social impact metrics and profitability often do not align, it can be difficult for social entrepreneurs to decide which to prioritise.
In some cases, social entrepreneurs can even be found to do more harm than good. When Toms Shoes launched in 2006, it had a great hook: for every shoe purchased, it would donate one to a child in need. However, as philanthropists pointed out, giving out shoes is a short-term fix for poverty, and in some cases, may even hurt poverty-stricken areas by disrupting local economies and creating a culture of dependence. The company now donates a birth kit in the place of shoes.
“We find constructive ways to move forward, but we don’t hold back from being critical, either. We don’t soften or backpedal”
And, even when social entrepreneurs are only out to do good, relationships with government don’t always run smoothly. Mistrust – on both sides – is a common obstacle.
“I’ve heard a lot of talk among social entrepreneurs – a kind of irritation with government: ‘Oh, government is slow and inefficient’. Well, they are working. They have the responsibility of tens of thousands of children. That sort of irritation comes through in their engagement with government,” said Cotton.
Charmian Gooch, the director and co-founder of Global Witness, often has to work hard to gain government’s trust. Her organisation exposes environmental corruption and the exploitation of natural resources, which can leave it at odds with public officials.
“There are times when we’re in expose mode and other times when we’re in solution-finding mode, when we want cooperation and to work together on an issue,” said Gooch. “We can be very tough; we’ve had to be very tough. In some of the corruption issues we’re looking at, the sums of money are so vast.”
Global Witness’ first campaign, jointly led by Gooch, exposed the corrupt timber trade between Khmer Rouge (the brutal regime that ruled Cambodia in the late ‘70s and was responsible for the deaths of up to two million people) and Thai logging companies.
The non-profit publishes hard-hitting investigations – stitched together from undercover investigations, data-driven financial evidence, and scrupulous, on-the-ground information gathering – which it uses to campaign for transparency in the public and private sectors. Global Witness often faces off with governments, demanding accountability from political leaders and justice for human rights violations.
“You can have positive and negative conversations going on with the same government. It’s a really complex set of relationships to manage,” said Gooch. “We find constructive ways to move forward, but we don’t hold back from being critical, either. We don’t soften or backpedal.”
Such is the case in China, where Global Witness is working with Beijing to develop guidelines on the timber industry. After nearly a decade of illegal logging in northern Myanmar, the government agreed to close its border to the logging trade and ordered Chinese workers to leave the country in 2006. The year prior, China imported $350 million worth of timber from Myanmar’s forests – almost all of which was illegal. Global Witness’ lobbying was critical to the government’s decision.
“People might not like us. They might not be comfortable that we’re an NGO, but we often have data no one else has, and we’re all about sharing that data and getting it out there,” said Gooch.
“There’s a difference between working with social entrepreneurs and other organisations, because other organisations have profit in mind”
Her advice to other social entrepreneurs working with government?
“Make it very clear from the outset that you’re not there to be their best friend – that you’re not there to be used for good PR. The government individuals you’re dealing with need to understand that you’re there to achieve an end purpose. That’s your common interest.”
Even for social entrepreneurs not directly facing off with public servants over bribery or fraud, retaining independence while working with an all-powerful government can be hard.
“We don’t let government pull the strings,” said Cotton of Camfed. “We have principles and we wouldn’t compromise. It’s about really knowing where you stand. We have zero tolerance for fraud, for the abuse of children – and this is not necessarily the case, in practice, of government.”
As a result of Camfed’s work, some 1.9 million students have attended primary and secondary school. The model is now implemented in nearly 5,500 government partner schools across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi.
“There’s a difference between working with social entrepreneurs and other organisations, because other organisations have profit in mind. For social entrepreneurs, it’s not based on how much money they get,” said Chilangwa, who later joined Camfed as director of the Zambia program and helped integrate the child protection program into national legislation and policy.
“Now, governments are listening to the voices of social entrepreneurs a lot more than they did in the past. Of course, there’s still an element of suspicion – but there’s much more openness and willingness to sit at the table with NGOs.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Camfed)