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Building Capacity for Truly Equitable Development

By Rachel Clift

Supporting social change leaders and entrepreneurs from non-traditional backgrounds requires an investment on many levels besides just capital.

Through mechanisms such as fellowships, potential investors – whether from the corporate or philanthropic world – can provide not only the financial capital but also the support systems that emerging social entrepreneurs and other types of community-based leaders need in order to effectively break down the barriers to long-term social change. The key is to identify and then invest in the right people.

But for emerging leaders in developing countries who come from marginalized communities, where do the barriers actually begin?  If we agree that achieving equitable development means supporting people who live closest to – and therefore maintain a deeper understanding of – the problems they want to solve, then we need to reevaluate how and in whom we make our investments.

For many socially committed innovators around the world, one of the most critical obstacles to creating meaningful social change through effective leadership is a lack of access to higher education. Local leaders with clear academic potential and an otherwise bright future as “changemakers” often lack educational opportunity because of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity, economic background, geographic location or physical disability. Their parents may not have completed secondary school, or they may have been encouraged to stay at home rather than attend university due to economic necessity or cultural norms. In the world’s most disadvantaged communities, higher education – let alone a post-graduate degree – isn’t a very common trajectory.

Yet the fact is it’s pretty hard to compete in the global marketplace of ideas without having experienced some form of education at the tertiary level. Higher education provides emerging leaders with the knowledge, critical thinking skills and access to professional networks that many budding entrepreneurs and other leaders typically need in order to make a difference in their societies. And while universities are increasingly committed to developing social innovation curricula and international leadership networks with support from forward-thinking organizations like Ashoka, too few grassroots leaders are part of that growing network.

We can begin to address this issue by allotting a larger portion of our resources not only to providing advanced education opportunities, but also to recruiting the best and brightest from underserved communities. Whether a fellowship is meant to cover tuition costs at a top academic institution or a year of business training and professional development, foundations and corporations can partner with local NGOs in countries where they wish to operate in order to seek out the most qualified applicants, regardless of geographical location, economic status, educational background – or even access to the internet. In an age when the vast majority of fellowship information is mainly available online, local organizations can help reach community leaders who live in rural villages or urban slums where a commitment to meaningful social change may abound, but where internet access is limited at best.

Francisco Kennedy is good example. A native of Acre in Brazil’s Northern Region, his home is covered by the exquisite Amazon Rainforest, which plays a significant role in global climate change, carbon cycle and biodiversity. After growing up watching acres of trees being burned, and in some cases, neighbors’ lives lost, in order to clear space for pasture and urban development, Kennedy began studying the links between local ecology, economics and community development. When our organizational partner, the São Paulo-based Carlos Chagas Foundation, conducted proactive outreach to Afro-Brazilian and rural indigenous groups in search of candidates for a Ford Foundation International Fellowship, Kennedy was encouraged to apply and was consequently awarded a grant to pursue a master’s degree in Tropical Conservation and Development at the University of Florida.

Today, Kennedy is a Fulbright Scholar, community activist and recipient of the prestigious Kleinhans Fellowship from the Rainforest Alliance, a global organization that predicts his leadership will contribute directly to the well-being of approximately 9,000 families in Acre and to the conservation of nearly 3 million acres of forests in Western Amazonia.

The rise of social entrepreneurism and other types of investments in sustainable, equitable development over the last decade has led to what might be considered a global, cross-sector social movement. Spearheaded by organizations like the Skoll Foundation and Acumen Fund, the growing trend is to support talented people who are committed to addressing a wide range of issues in their home countries and communities, and have demonstrated a combination of local knowledge and management potential with what Acumen calls “moral imagination.”

The philanthropic community needs to support people like Francisco Kennedy, even if that means investing in their advanced study before “returns” like social change at the community level are visible.  Emerging leaders without a formal education background often need robust pre-academic training and strong support systems throughout their programs or fellowships in order to help them manage the challenges that come with a cross-cultural experience as they enter top universities abroad, or join established professional networks. For potential investors, this could mean an added risk, but one that’s well worth taking.

Rachel Clift is a Communications Officer with the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program

[Image credit: NUFFIC]

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