One of the most notable underlying themes of David Bornstein’s book, How to Change the World, is the social entrepreneur’s oft-strained relationship with national governments. Fabio Rosa struggled with the Brazilian government over rural electrification policies for decades. Florence Nightingale was snubbed repeatedly by the British government before her talents were realized and used in the Crimean War. More recently, Jeroo Billimoria encountered road block after road block in dealing with different branches of the Indian government before she was successful in creating a national child service hotline.
Erzebet Szekeres, the Hungarian founder and operator of a renowned assisted living home for the disabled, also knows something about mixing her vision with government regulations. In her earliest years, when Hungary was still dominated by the Soviet Union, Szekeres was repulsed by government services available for disabled people. She joined the National Association for the Disabled, aiming to inspire communist politicos to improve health care and housing services for the disabled. But as David Bornstein appropriately writes, “A totalitarian government is not easily lobbied.”
Szekeres went on to exploit new, liberalized policies instituted in the spirit of glasnost and perestroika throughout the 1980s, eventually forming a small cooperative (called “Alliance”) to assist “moderately disabled youth.” But the bureaucracy, the paperwork, the rules were still stifling to Szekeres’ work. Having conceived the cooperative initially in 1982, it wasn’t until 1989 – after “applications, applications, applications, layers and layers of applications” – that Alliance received its first significant sum of money from the Hungarian Ministry of Welfare.
Eventually, as she grew her cooperative and expanded her firm’s mission, Szekeres would be recognized by Hungary’s president for her work with the disabled. But that wasn’t until the European Union demanded the Hungarian government improve its health services. In other words, only when Hungary had a substantial interest in health care policies did the government come to fawn over Szekeres remarkable work.
The message? National and state governments can be powerful allies or powerful enemies. The key for the social entrepreneur is to give his local government a reason to support his work (through lobbying, larger national interest, etc.) early and often. Realistically, until political leaders are willing to accept original approaches to social problems, the work of social entrepreneurs will always be in jeopardy.