The Western Myth About Entrepreneurship
Culture is powerful. One cultural identifier in the west is industriousness. People all around the world tend to think of Americans as "good at business," and "smart and inventive" and inevitably "white". These are cultural identifiers born of a narrative that we've told about ourselves for centuries. And like all generalizations, they contain a truth. We, in the west, are entrepreneurs.
But this isn't our narrative alone. Not at all.
Entrepreneurship, defined as identifying a problem (or an opportunity), fixing that problem and profiting from the fix, is human. It is in our genes. We are creators. All of us. What differs is the way we profit from entrepreneurship. Westerners believe that profit is due the individual. We are comfortable with the word mine. This is a result of history, and it is by and large the reason for our incredible material success. But in many non-western nations profits are always understood as communal. The individual does well through and by the community. This is not communism, this is pre-industrial agrarian culture. In this sense, profits become social in nature, and social entrepreneurship becomes the core of a healthy economy. We at FTF like to call this healthy economy the oikonomia. Sadly, western style interventions fail to take these cultural mechanisms into account because we often misunderstand the culture we aim to assist.
We wrongly believe that entrepreneurship is "ours" and that we must teach "them" about it. This is dead wrong. We don't need to teach entrepreneurship, we need to lend a hand to local entrepreneurs. And, very importantly, we need to be much more comfortable with a communitarian form of profit. We need to expect outcomes to look different in different cultures. People won't get rich. Villages will. Don't be frightened by this.
Think of individualism as a religion. We must not force it on others.
Sometimes, though, it's not a misunderstanding that drives the problem. Sometimes we simply set out to change traditional economic models. We apply western style individualism knowingly not because it is better for them, but because it is better for us. In this way we are disruptive, and dangerous. Yet, entrepreneurs- fixers of problems- exist in every society if only we take the time to find them, and the humility to hear them. Dambiso Moyo, a Zambian economist and aid expert points this out nicely in her book, Dead Aid.
In short, we must “just say no” to the new colonialism. We must, instead, embrace localism. But yet people suffer. In Sierra Leone the situation is egregious. 79% of all rural Sierra Leoneans live below the poverty line. Ebola has made this even worse. Only 26% of Ethiopians have access to improved sanitary and clean water sources. In the Samtskhe-Javakheti region of the Georgia Republic there is little to no access to health care and education. 70% of indigenous Guatemalans live in poverty. This number is even higher at elevation, places like Momostenango.
Yes, people do suffer. But pity must be reserved for our own souls, first and foremost. For those brothers and sisters that suffer in poverty empathy is our duty. Listening is our duty. Quiet humility is our calling. Control, and yes, even "education" must be avoided. But this really isn't a conversation about far away places and international development, is it? This is about living, day to day, among our neighbors and friends, wherever we are. This is about the First Things.
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