PCDForum Column #33,   Release Date May 1, 1992

by Bishan Singh

As the inefficient, control-driven state economies of Eastern Europe collapse, many are inclined to assume that the only alternative is the profit-driven free enterprise economy. Such an assumption neglects the implications of the experiences of citizen organizations around the world that are demonstrating many on a consequential scale the potentials of an ethical, life-centered, community focused, sustainable alternative: a social enterprise economy supported by voluntary community effort and an ethical commitment to sharing. The importance of these experiences is underscored by growing evidence that in a resource limited world, sharing may be the only viable foundation for a sustainable economy.

The nature and significance of these citizen initiatives unfolded for me during a recent visit to Japan as a guest of the Japanese NGO Center for International Cooperation (JANIC). Our program included visits to four remarkable large-scale, broadly based community initiatives, each demonstrating the viability of one or more elements of a social enterprise economy.

Lake Biwa: The largest freshwater lake in Japan, Lake Biwa was threatened in the early 1970s with massive pollution. Concerned citizens organized themselves to save this community resource by changing the household and industrial waste disposal practices that threatened it. Today, although located in the midst of a densely populated industrial area, Lake Biwa is one of the cleanest fresh water lakes in the world. A new social context has been created for both industry and household management.

Minamata Bay: Prior to the 1950s the bay's fishing industry was the primary source of livelihood for some 200,000 people. Mercury oxide discharged into the bay by Chisso Chemical Company poisoned the fish and the people and animals who ate them. The mercury attacked the brain and nervous system, causing spasms, inability to coordinate bodily functions, intense pain, and finally death a condition since named Minamata disease. Various community groups organized to stop the pollution, provide care and demand compensation for the victims, and sponsor research on the disease. Heightened environmental awareness has resulted in various voluntary initiatives in support of alternative lifestyles, organic farming, soap making from used cooking oil, and other recycling initiatives.

The Sekatsu Club: The 153,000 politically and socially conscious members of this consumer cooperative pool their resources to gain access at fair prices to healthy, environmentally sound consumer goods consistent with responsible life-styles. In so doing they provide a market for socially and environmentally responsible producers, and send a strong economic signal to those who are not.

Kikuchi Joujou-en Health Clinic: This unique clinic promotes healthy living using both modern and traditional preventive and curative health practices. Its centerpiece is a 50 acre organic farm producing healthy natural foods free of the poisons that have infested much of Japan's food chain. It is run as a self-supporting business that places community service ahead of profits.

These experiments demonstrate large-scale voluntary application of several ethical principles that form the essential foundation for a social enterprise economy:

  • Responsible stewardship for future generations.
  • Community-centered people's participation.
  • Efficient, cost-effective use of resources.
  • Enhancement of ecological and cultural diversity.
  • Improvements in quality of life over profits.

How a society organizes to meet its basic needs for food, clothing and shelter is fundamental to the ways in which it structures its social, political and spiritual institutions and consciousness. These are so closely interlinked that it is senseless to talk of transformational social change without addressing underlying questions of economic organization.

The actions of growing numbers of citizen groups around the world that have directly suffered from the deficiencies of the prevailing economic system are creating the foundations of a social enterprise economy. These experiments reflect a faith in free enterprise and the competitive market, but not for the purpose of amassing profits through the unrestrained depletion of community resources for the private gain of the few. The social enterprise economy depends on a combination of ethical commitment and community vigilance based on a strong social consensus to moderate competitive market forces in the community interest.

Growing numbers of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are engaging in supporting livelihood projects for the poor. Some are looking beyond the creation of individual enterprises in the conventional mode of the enterprise economy and experimenting with building community contexts for a strong and effective social enterprise economy. It is appropriate that others join them in this important experiment in economic and political transformation.

Bishan Singh is executive director of the Management Institute for Social Change (MINSOC), 2114 Jalan Merpati, 25300 Kuantan, Malaysia and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This column was produced and distributed by the PCDForum.

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