I was a facilitator in 2012 for an entrepreneurship and employability training programme. One of the pre-programme activities was a community walk-through where we engaged community members, shared details of the forthcoming opportunity, gauged interest, got commitments and encouraged people to spread the word.
While canvassing, we came upon a young boy playing in the street with a homemade cart. We learned that not only did he make the cart himself, he made and fixed carts for other children in the community. The person among us who struck up the conversation inquired about whether he charges to do so but he did this at no cost.
The innocence of youth was apparent as we dialogued. I knew where the conversation was headed when the question about charging was posed so I voiced my opposition. The dialogue continued nonetheless but with intermittent interruptions from me, echoing previous objections.
It was suggested he charge a few dollars and his reasoning was appealed to with getting materials to do more carts among benefits. I didn’t take issue because this was “wrong”. This was arguably the most “right” thing we could have done, considering the context of our being there, though not our target audience that day.
I’ve been involved with entrepreneurship development, on an ongoing basis so I’m aware of the thrust to introduce the concept of enterprise at a very early age. This thrust is motivated by the drive to develop entrepreneurial capacity in the region, which is trailing on the world stage. There are talks at the regional level about fostering the “entrepreneurial mindset” in as early as primary school. Entrepreneurship development moreover, is among key areas of focus internationally.
It is important to note that entrepreneurship or economics rather, underpins everything we do, so other key areas from women’s development and environmental sustainability, to the mitigation of crime and violence, often crosscut entrepreneurship. The few areas that may have fallen through the gap, are now being taken up by a conception gaining steam called “social business” wherein “charity” is monetized. There are however, even more deeply interwoven relationships among key areas than these. An illustration of this is a company being runned by, employing, and/or focused on empowering women or at-risk youth which produces goods from recycled materials. The melody made by such key areas working in harmony, is aural titillation to international bodies.
We’ve seen on social media the wonder-preneur stories about youth and adults alike, who create something from even less than nothing, considering their volatile circumstances. International agencies have launched training programmes, think-tanks, bootcamps, accelerators, funds and more, to develop idea and skill rich, but fiscally poor and developing nations. The dialogue on the street that day was precisely what we’ve been lamenting need be; it was the ideal way to begin developing entrepreneurial capacity. Still, I objected then and I’d object even more fervently today.
I couldn’t persuasively argue my point then because I was voicing an internal conflict I hadn’t been faced with before. I was cognizant of the need for capacity development. I was aware of the advantages that beginning at an early age presented. I was knowledgeable about and proud of young entrepreneurs in the past and even I was wise to the workings of business at an early age, though my own journey began at a more modest one. In spite of all this, I sensed a contradiction between that engagement and all else we work to do. What I sensed was, we were destroying something of intrinsic value to create something of fiat worth.
We develop the economy at the expense of community.
Calls for volunteerism were a big thing a few years ago. The phrase, “volunteerism is dead” was often invoked to explain paltry response. Innumerable organizations are defunct because of, among other things, a lack of human and financial resources. We are hard-pressed for volunteers for everything from nonprofit events to national ones. Even activities for one’s direct benefit or in support of people we call friends, don’t get satisfactory responses without a dollar being dangled. We reminisce on the “good ole days” when things were different and assume people or the times “just changed”. If we were to honestly inquire of ourselves, we’d see just why those good times ended.
We oppose communal-thinking and encourage self-interest. A boy, eager only to exercise his abilities and help his peers enjoy the same novelties he does, is taught that simply sharing such gifts is foolish. He is taught that it’s a missed opportunity to exploit his gift and his peers. We [implicitly] sought to engender the thinking that the work he once did freely, was to be withheld if exchange was not involved. Satisfaction from doing the work he enjoyed was to be set aside and satisfaction seeing the enthusiasm about what he created, with it. Satisfaction, even further, from a community playing together, was to be set aside for satisfaction in intrinsically valueless coins, worthless pieces of paper and a meaningless collection of digits on a computer screen that we call a savings. That young boy was taught to see people as commodities. He was taught to view his work as a commodity (which is the basis of the “job” concept). He was taught to see joy and fulfillment as commodities and ones not attained in working to fill a need but in the reward of pay (which is the reward of “jobs” not work).
Politicians in every democratic nation lament “job creation” but do we question what “jobs” are? We would laud the benefits of such a boy growing to make a fortune, then “giving back”. But why praise him “giving back” when he’d be the one creating (or perpetuating) deprivation? There was no barrier to the boy’s peers accessing carts except access to materials from which they could be made. This natural barrier was already being surmounted with the same creativity used to create the carts in the first place since they were made from materials gathered. The artificial barrier the dollar would create, is one that would necessitate these boys (or more so their parents) get a “job”, to earn a buck, to pay for a cart and then to maintain it. This artificial, self-imposed, barrier is one the boy would erect, denying his peers his work because he is not being paid. This is why it’s important we understand the difference between work and “jobs” and why it is imperative we understand the constantly interacting consequences of our actions, like choosing not to question but to maintain the systems we inherited.
The boy, should he determine he would not work unless paid, is the entrepreneurial ideal to which we’re now orienting ourselves. It is the very thinking the member of our team aimed to engender, though perhaps not an explicit thought at the time. This refusal to share what one has in lieu of a price being paid, is the reason so many buildings on St. Kitts are unoccupied for years and are reduced to uninhabitable conditions, though the need for space has always existed. Owners refuse to rent for less than they believe should be paid (most often the equivalent of a supervisor’s full salary for a month, for space alone, no utilities or other overheads considered). Putting a price on our work is not a distant cry from putting a high price on our work. The difference is merely the measurement and is relative, which makes it easier for us to consider justified.
From the boy who makes carts, to the person who plants food, to the teacher, doctor and so on, which his peers would become, there was never a thought about necessitating a trade until we introduced it and so the cycle continues. We never see ourselves as the reason but this is why, as we say, “things can never change”.
I couldn’t articulate this nearly as clearly then but I’ve aimed to be principled all my days. That is why I felt a conflict between what was about to be said to the boy and the positive changes we were all trying to create. All were well meaning and all were involved with social development in multiple ways. My issue wasn’t that it was “wrong”, it couldn’t be more “right” by society’s standards. That is, however, where the problem lies – our standards. These are ideals we must reevaluate.
We are not guided by the values we [purport] to have but the environment (the market, the way institutions have been managed, the political tribalism entrenched in everything, the way the world works). I don’t refer to any of these things to guide my choices; I reflect on my values in every engagement. That’s the reason I could have seen the disparity in thought and action when I did back then. Seeking understanding which is the primary cause I champion, is why I understand and can communicate the issue today.
In July 2016, I ceased work on my business to focus on said cause and before that, I stopped entrepreneurship training and a number of other things. When I said there were a number of reasons I stopped, I meant it. I came to realize we create problems then protest against them and blame everyone but ourselves.
The problem is not entrepreneurship, it isn’t even the constructs we’ve built – it’s our unquestioning commitment to those constructs. The dialogue with the boy was meant to empower him and consequently the (future) economy. Great! But how much effort do we put into building community? We seek to have youth think about the economy at a younger and younger age; when will we have them think about community? We think of the economy and the community as one in the same but as seen, they employ opposing ideals. So, my question once again is, when will we begin thinking about community?
Ervin Welsh. May 05, 2017