Wanted: A President Who Can Run the Philippines Like a Social Enterprise

Posted on August 2, 2008


Author’s note: This piece was originally written for the Young Public Servants (YPS) website and also posted in Inquirer Blogs.

I recently posed this challenge to some like-minded colleagues: draft a want ad for this country’s next president, then let’s see how we are able to articulate the skills, qualifications, and necessary track record of the Philippines’s Chief Executive. After all, we cannot even begin to seriously assess our current crop of presidential hopefuls if we don’t know what we are looking for in the first place. I honestly thought that it would be quite easy because the exercise had to be somewhat similar to writing an ad for a CEO of a large corporation. How hard could that be, right? (The power of Google, and cut and paste…)

Well, I apparently underestimated the task. While doing some online research on the subject it occurred to me that maybe my entire premise was wrong in the first place. The Philippines is not a large corporation. It is not large geographically, politically, economically, or even diplomatically the way the First World Countries, or even China or India, are. It is not even a dark horse the way Russia is often viewed. In the local setting, the Philippines is not like one of those multinationals that are housed in one of the ritzier office spaces along Ayala Avenue. It might not even be located in any of the central business districts. If the Philippines were an enterprise, it could probably be considered a startup, or a relatively young SME at the most.

Therefore, the kind of president that we need is not somebody who will saunter into the office in an extremely expensive suit—with an army of executive assistants, senior vice presidents, and consultants in tow—and be a “boardroom executive.” We need someone who has the mindset of an entrepreneur and who will be able to dig through the mud (literally, sometimes) to get things done.

But because I’m a fan of social enterprises and social enterprises, I’d take it up a notch and venture to say that the Philippines could be likened to a social enterprise, and therefore needs a president who has the mindset of a social entrepreneur.

First things first: Why a social enterprise?

While doing some research for a social enterprise business plan that some friends and I were developing, I came across these definitions by Stacey Childress (2006) of Harvard Business School:

· Entrepreneurship: The pursuit of opportunity regardless of the resources you currently control.

· “Social entrepreneurship: The pursuit of an opportunity to create pattern-breaking social change regardless of the resources you currently control.”

The Philippines is an enterprise more than a large corporation, first and foremost, because it doesn’t have the resources (real or perceived) to run itself like a huge entity. It lacks the money, the skills, and even the clout to be considered a Big Leaguer. But the Philippines as a country, and Filipinos in general, has always been crafty and resourceful—the way entrepreneurs usually are. It has tried to make the most of its limited resources (whether policies were developed or executed well is another story altogether), and it has been kept afloat by a huge underground economy and a massive diaspora. If you think about it, we operate much like the ubiquitous tiangge, lechon manok, and fishball stalls that dot the country—throw us anywhere and we’ll pretty much survive. (I’ll stop there before I get ahead of myself.)

But, again, I venture to say that the Philippines could be likened to a social enterprise because there is so much in our country that lends itself to social entrepreneurship. We have crafty, resourceful, creative people who CAN “create pattern-breaking social change” if we really wanted to. We have access to agricultural and human resources that could potentially make us the darlings of the fair-trade-conscious West. Much of our population is very much rooted in grassroots communities who are often the beneficiaries of social enterprises themselves. We have very active civil society, youth, and academic sectors that continuously instill in our collective consciousness the need for positive change. If you look more closely at the conditions that exist within and around the Philippines, we could say that we are poised for GREAT changes, GREAT leaps forward that COULD take us to the forefront of the Social Enterprise Era—BUT! We need someone with the RIGHT qualities to drive us forward. And, definitely, it CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT be the same old bureaucrat types.

What’s in a social entrepreneur?

In the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship’s publication listing outstanding social entrepreneurs (2006), Klaus and Hilde Schwab, the organization’s founders, wrote:

“… The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship has carefully selected a group of unusually courageous men and women that pursue their vision of a better world by applying extraordinary creativity and resourcefulness to some of the world’s most challenging issues. They are not just dreamers… They have the rare ability to ground their dreams in reality and translate them into pragmatic, goal-oriented and measurable action. As a result, they have produced some of the most innovative approaches to social, economic and political problems that continue to defy conventional means of action [boldface mine].”

Childress’s template for social enterprise plans, on the other hand, talks of the need for a “Theory of Change”—a belief about how actions will contribute to the fulfillment of a larger vision. This “theory” could be focused on either local or systemic change, but it has to define how the social enterprise’s activities will contribute to the big picture.

Social entrepreneurs, therefore, are visionaries—wild, passionate, big-picture thinkers—first and foremost. They are unafraid of dreaming of WHAT COULD BE; to them, “impossible” means “I‘ll Make it POSSIBLE.” Who in our current crop of presidentiable-wannabes thinks that way?

Next, social entrepreneurs are able to link current gaps with current givens and future possibilities in ways that are extremely innovative, creative, “out of the universe” and yet very, very logical. They are unafraid of asking the important question—”Why not?”—and going, “What next?” For instance, one of my favorite social enterprises, Rags 2 Riches, linked the existing realities of dismal economic conditions in Payatas and the nanays’ current means of livelihood—rag-making—to the big dream of making “designer rags.” Throw renowned fashion designer Rajo Laurel into the mix, and you’ve got a kick-ass concept (which just recently won an international business plan competition) and beautiful bags that even Angelina Jolie will buy because (1) they’re great products and (2) they support fair trade.

Imagine this: If we could reinvent the Philippines using the social enterprise model, what would it look like? More importantly, are any of our politicians willing to take the risk of painstaking—but powerful—transformation? Or are they simply promising the same old Spartan slippers and simply rebranding them as Havaianas?

Social entrepreneurs also know what their goals look like and, therefore, how to know when they’ve already achieved them. Social enterprises are not just lofty causes filled with empty promises. At the heart of it all, social enterprises are income-generating operations for which metrics, indicators, and impact are very important. At the end of the day, we will know where we stand and what else we need to do to fill in the gaps.

Of course, this may all look simpler than things actually are. There are, perhaps, many questions that a social enterprise model may not be able to answer—yet. BUT, at this point in our country’s history, I can say that I am one of many, many Filipinos who will be willing to take some risks and make some sacrifices in order to see real, sincere, and systemic transformations in this country. To look beyond politics as usual, we also need to look beyond current models and metaphors for government officials and governance.

Think about it: if we had a president who at the very least was as entrepreneurial, as passionate, as savvy, as creative, and as progressive as some of our country’s top (social) entrepreneurs, wouldn’t you feel a tad more hopeful about our future and more willing to help make things work?

Copyright © 2008 Niña Terol