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

  • 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

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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