Perspective: Social Entrepreneurship by the Billions
Only a decade ago, some 400 million people in India lacked any type of formal documentation. Most were impoverished and, without even basic identification such as a birth certificate, they were marginalized and unable to alter their societal status. This condition made them, in effect, noncitizens, with no influence on or ability to participate in their country’s economic and legal systems. They couldn’t vote, open a bank account, or access government services.
Nandan Nilekani wrote about this problem in his 2008 book, Imagining India: The Idea of a Renewed Nation (Penguin Press). An engineer by training, he was one of the cofounders of Infosys, the IT services giant that helped spur India’s technology revolution. In his book, Nilekani proposed providing each of India’s approximately 1.2 billion citizens with a unique, fraud-proof identifier. The following year, India’s then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, asked Nilekani to turn this idea into reality. He appointed Nilekani chairman of a new government agency, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), which was tasked with creating such an identifier. The initiative came to be called Project Aadhaar (the Hindi word for foundation or base).
India’s documentation problem was the product of a system in a miserable equilibrium. Left alone, it would continue to operate in the same way and deliver the same outcomes — hundreds of millions of people excluded from formal citizenship. Shifting such an equilibrium is no simple task. But it is the sort of challenge to which the world’s social entrepreneurs apply their resolve and creativity.
Social entrepreneurship has been variously defined over the years as any enterprise that includes social good as part of its mission, as a nonprofit that seeks to build its sustainability through market forces, and simply even as any organization working to make the world a better place. This last catch-all is the most problematic, as it suggests every organization aiming for even the smallest improvement in the status quo can be considered as being engaged in social entrepreneurship. The term thus becomes everything and nothing.