It is Time to Change the Pity Narrative When Solving Social Problems

10/18/2016 01:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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Why would I--perfectly lucky to be Canadian--decide to move back to the Middle East when millions of people here would literally die to make the reverse trip?

Over a decade ago, my parents had worked very hard to get my siblings and me out of there and to a better life in Canada. I was lucky enough to attend a university as prestigious as the University of Toronto, and have an incredible education and college experience. In 2012, I graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science, with a focus on genetics, biotechnology and pharmacology. Upon my graduation, I decided to take a short trip to Egypt, but with an appealing research opportunity and an internship in Cairo at a major aid organization I ended up staying.

The Corporate-Charity Dichotomy
Being trained as a health researcher with an interest in pharmaceuticals, upon graduation my career options seemed to split into two distinct paths. I could either work for a profit-maximizing pharmaceutical company, where I would probably make a ton of money off people's illness; or I could take a not so well-paying job with a government or charitable non-governmental organizations that aim to serve and help the ill. I wished I didn't have to choose between doing well and doing good, but with my work in Cairo, I saw myself taking the latter path. Little did I know that it would it lead me into a completely different path: a path where doing well and doing good go hand-in-hand.

After a short time in a place like Cairo, one thing that is impossible to ignore--besides the chaotic traffic--is the sheer entrepreneurial hunger and energy in the city. Don't believe me? Just hop on a Metro car. You can buy almost anything from "mobile retailers." These men and women sell things out of their backpacks or large shopping bags: accessories, clothes, makeup, medicine, books, electronics...you name it, they have it. I once saw one woman complete a whole day's worth of shopping on one subway ride! That is just one example of how innovative people can get to make ends meet. These people don't take on these jobs because they want to, but because they have no other choices. They are "entrepreneurs out of necessity."

After a short time in a place like Cairo, one thing that is impossible to ignore--besides the chaotic traffic--is the sheer entrepreneurial hunger and energy in the city.

It's not just an Egyptian phenomenon, however; you can see this across the developing world. On a trip to Northern Sudan, I stopped by a beauty salon for a traditional henna tattoo. There I had my first encounter with a Syrian refugee, a gorgeous woman in her mid-30s who had a large shopping bag full of beauty essentials in one arm, and her toddler sleeping in another. She was selling these imported products to the customers at the salon, and chatting with another woman about the rising numbers of Syrian refugees in Sudan. When the other woman mentioned that she had seen a Syrian man begging for money the other day, the Syrian woman's response was one I will never forget. Her tone got very serious and she sounded very offended as she replied: "No real Syrian will beg for money. We work. We work hard, but we never beg!" She was not saying that from a place of anger, but a place of dignity and pride. With millions of Syrian refugees opening thriving business in Egypt and Sudan, they have continued to have a reputation for their relentless work ethic.

After these two experiences, it was when it really hit me that people do not want to be pitied; they want opportunities.

People do not want to be pitied; they want opportunities.

Do well, then do good?
As human beings, we have a great temptation to turn inward and focus on our own problems in life. For many, there is this notion that in order to help the poor and the disadvantaged, we have to make a life for ourselves first, meet all our personal and family needs, and then use any extra resources to help others. The same concept has spread rapidly in the corporate world with the concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), where large corporations reserve part of their profits for social-oriented charitable projects. The problem with this approach of "doing well and then doing good" is that it has created a dome of isolation that widens the gap between the well-off and the badly-off (often referred to as "the bottom of the pyramid"). That is because charity is just a quick fix to societal problems, with no real long-term impact. Giving money away with no end goal fosters a culture of dependency that could be very difficult to undo. More importantly, it does not really get to the root of the problems at hand.

So, should we give up on charitable work? Not at all. Charity is important, just not sufficient. The key challenge is to find more sustainable solutions.

Through innovation, social enterprises harnesses the energy and the knowledge within the underprivileged/underserved communities to better serve them.

Rising Entrepreneurial Ethos

What has been truly revolutionary over the past few decades is the cross-pollination that has occurred between businesses and social work. In search for sustainable solutions, social entrepreneurs started using business models and concepts with the end goal of maximizing social benefit as opposed to profit. The result was a new wave of social businesses that have social good at the heart of what they do, with profit becoming but an engine to ensure these goals are fully realized.

Through innovation, social enterprises harnesses the energy and the knowledge within the underprivileged/underserved communities to better serve them. This usually through empowering and employing members of these communities, and/or through the use of innovative models to bring down the costs of products and services for the community. What is really important is that these entrepreneurs are not looking down on the communities they are trying to help with pity, instead they are forming strong partnerships with these communities; partnerships that are mutually-beneficial and essential to the enterprise's' success.

What has really helped this wave happen is the shift in what young people started looking for in a career. It was no longer just about financial gain; it became about passion, and a deep sense of duty and determination to contribute to the world. Young, educated and ambitious, many young men and women are taking the up-by-your-bootstraps approach to entrepreneurship. They have no time for excuses, only for solutions; they are rolling up their sleeves and fixing things themselves. What makes them entrepreneurs as opposed to traditional businessmen/women is the fact that they often have to operate on very limited resources and in volatile environments surrounded by great uncertainty.
Going back to my opening question, I think my spontaneous leap of faith--coming to Egypt in the midst of great economic uncertainty and volatility following the 2011 revolution--had to do with the entrepreneur in me. While I am working on setting up my own health enterprise - which I hope I would be able to write about soon- I am drawing inspiration from the ingenious entrepreneurs around me. From health to education, energy to handcrafts preservation there is are many truly innovative enterprises popping up across the country, region, and the entire continent.

What is really important is that these entrepreneurs are not looking down on the communities they are trying to help with pity, instead they are forming strong partnerships with these communities; partnerships that are mutually-beneficial and essential to the enterprise's' success.

As former U.S. president Bill Clinton once said, "Intelligence, dreams and the willingness to work are evenly distributed throughout the world." I believe that what we have to do is tap into the already existing and immense entrepreneurial energy for a greater social impact. By empowering people through providing them with the right opportunities, hire them, partner with them, and build businesses that cater to their needs, we can go beyond good. Social enterprises are real game-changing solutions to social problems, not just in countries like Egypt, but around the globe.