Graduate Student Spotlight: Sustainable Social Ventures

Over the past month, I have had the opportunity to work with two incredible non-governmental agencies (NGO) that are making a significant impact in their local communities–Sri Lanka Unites and Onzega.

Founded by Notre Dame graduate Prashan De Visser, Sri Lanka Unites is an NGO that is working to eradicate the ethnic and religious barriers established during Sri Lanka’s civil war. For the last 30 years, Sri Lanka’s brutal and bloody civil war pitted the majority Buddhist Sinhalese against the minority Hindu Tamils. sri lankaAlthough the death toll from the civil war has yet to be accurately assessed, most estimate that up to 100,000 people have died in the conflict. Sri Lanka Unites is actively engaged in promoting peace through reconciliation efforts among the youth by providing education, training and other programs designed to encourage collaboration between Sinhalese and Tamil youth and ultimately putting an end to the racial tension ingrained in their society.

Onzega Tanzania provides solar lights and agricultural products to the rural poor in Tanzania in an effort to promote economic development and increase local incomes. Onzega aims onzegato increase small farmers’ productivity and profitability by providing greater access to agricultural knowledge, technologies, inputs, marketing systems, and infrastructure. Onzega’s innovative delivery process leverages its 60 person sales team that provides improved seeds, fertilizer, training packages, crop insurance and drip irrigation in one bundle right to the farmers’ door step.

Both organizations are doing incredibly impactful work within their local communities and changing lives on a daily basis. However, both are also wrestling with the same fundamental problem: how can we become less reliant on grants and donations and become self-sustainable?

It perhaps goes without saying that there is no “one size fits all” answer to this problem. Each NGO and each local community has its own set of economic boundaries, cultural norms and ethnic traditions that create a vastly different context in which it operates. For any NGO to be successful, they must be able to recognize how all of these traditions, values, and norms interact in order to understand the motivations, and more importantly, the daily problems of the local community. This can be very difficult, particularly for an outsider. It is for these reasons that a human-centered development approach is so vital to these organizations.

Contrary to the traditional linear development approach, human-centered design is a process that empowers local leaders and entrepreneurs to tackle social issues themselves. By providing local community members the means to tackle the largest social problems, you gain access to a source of knowledge that has been traditionally ignored. The people on the front lines of the issues, more often than not, know what is needed to solve the problem, but don’t necessarily have the tools to take the next step. “[P]eople must be at the centre of human development, both as beneficiaries and as drivers, as individuals and in groups. People must be empowered with the tools and knowledge to build their own communities, states and nations.”

Although still a daunting task, I think that taking this approach to not only creating sustainable social enterprises, but also to development in general, provides a much more experienced and broad knowledge base to draw upon to aid in alleviating any social issue. The next step is to put the theory into practice. Stay tuned!tom callen

Tom Callen is a 2016 MBA Candidate at the University of Notre Dame. He played college basketball at DePauw University and has previously worked for STAR Financial Bank.

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