There has been lots of buzz these days about inclusive growth and wealth redistribution. So much so that even a humble intern like myself feels the need to grapple with such big issues. It’s come up at every social innovation event I’ve been to and with every entrepreneur I’ve spoken with in Manila. Even back on the Hilltop, The Hoya recently published a column called “The Promise of Reverse Innovation” (The Hoya, July 2, 2015, A3). In a nutshell, the idea is to create business models that target the poorest of the poor. Instead of focusing on wealthy nations, the goal is to look beyond the developed world and break into the untapped markets of those in poverty.
Theoretically, this approach is a win-win. Businesses increase profits and impoverished communities move one level up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What’s there to criticize? Up until this past weekend, I couldn’t think of anything. This was the groundbreaking answer to development. But then, my fellowship took a trip to the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm, poster child of inclusive growth for Filipino slums. There, I realized that inclusive growth could take on many forms, some sinister, some revolutionary. Depending on the context, combining optimized profit with social change can be insidiously ironic or incredibly empowering.
For example, consider bringing foreign business models into a country with 400 years of colonization. Such a history would make any nation wary of foreigners, and the Philippines is no exception. Whenever an outsider, often light-skinned and Western, comes to the Philippines to help develop, it’s a delicate situation full of contradicting jargon. The activists scream neocolonialism and cultural imperialism. The businessmen proclaim emerging economies and globalization. With this deep colonial history, inclusive growth in the Philippines carries both the danger of neocolonialism and the promise of global collaboration. Who’s to tell the difference?
The significant presence of foreigners was the first thing we noticed at the Enchanted Farm. This scenario, placed before a group of hyperaware Filipino-Americans, drew skepticism from many of us. However, after my initial cynicism, I decided the mix of cultures was thrilling and progressive, especially since both locals and foreigners alike encouraged a sense of Filipino pride. I loved that people from around the world wanted to explore and promote my homeland. But my friends were more hesitant. They were quick to denounce the capitalist tinge of the organization and the shadows of neocolonialism it’s often associated with. Moreover, the controversy surrounding GK’s founder, Tony Meloto, and his recent sexist speech tainted all our perceptions of GK. But his vision for the Enchanted Farm still stirred us, mostly positively, but for some, negatively.
In a sentence, GK Enchanted Farm is a hub for Filipino social entrepreneurship. Sounds simple enough, but in reality it’s more complex. Although centered on the Philippines, the farm doesn’t exactly attract many Filipinos. In fact, the opposite happens; international entrepreneurs from developed nations come looking for hands-on experience in the field. Oftentimes, these foreigners help incubate the enterprises that empower and uplift local communities. My friends immediately questioned this as capitalist colonialism. However, maybe this skepticism that stems from the past keeps Filipinos from considering an entirely new future, one of international collaboration.
As a fellowship, we’re still divided over our opinions on Tony Meloto and his viewpoints. Speaking for myself, I agreed with his global outlook on social entrepreneurship. I believe that the new Filipino shouldn’t be limited by race or ethnicity, as long as genuine empathy remains central. This empathy grounds the GK community and its equal exchange of skills across all levels: East and West, rich and poor, urban and rural. GK’s success is the work of many. It’s a best-of-both-worlds approach that requires an open mind and a compassionate heart.
My peers also brought up the issue of GK’s commercial slant. They questioned the morality of profit-driven enterprises that incorporate the poor as employees and consumers. What were the lines between exploitation and empowerment? Between cultural imperialism and education? The model of GK Enchanted Farm seemed to push those lines in new directions. However, GK’s enterprises can’t be compared to commercial corporations without a conscience. They aren’t necessarily the private sector’s solution to development, but something else entirely.
The Stanford Social Innovation Review recently published an article called “Time for the Plural Sector.” In addition to public and private, Henry Mintzberg describes a completely different sector that isn’t a combination of the two, but a unique space in itself. This is the world of nonprofits, social organizations, grassroots movements and associations of all varieties. The public provides protection, the private provides consumption, and now, the plural provides affiliation — in other words, a sense of community. Mintzberg believes we’ve become imbalanced toward too much private sector consumption. To bring back equilibrium, we need stronger, human-centered communities.
This is what Gawad Kalinga is doing for the Philippines, in addition to hundreds of other Filipino social entrepreneurs. They’re re-interpreting the Filipino values of bayanihan and kapwa, feelings that describe being connected and united in solidarity. At GK, this collective mindset spans ethnicities and classes. Seeing this unity made me question the isolated individualism of the West. I realized the value in making an investment with and for each other. At the end of the day, inclusive growth should be the growth of a shared humanity rather than just shared profits.
There’s an African proverb that says it best: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Sarah Santos is a freshman in the McDonough School of Business. Coconut Girl appears every other Friday.