Today I was introduced to a whole new literature that will provide an interesting framework for my future understanding of soft power and public diplomacy. Dr Albert Chu-Ying Teo of the National University of Singapore Business School delivered a fascinating presentation at Chengchi University, Taipei, on social entrepreneurship and Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD), and the value of this approach to soft power is quite striking. I still have to attack the literature to fully appreciate the concept, its nuances and implications, but Albert's synopsis is a useful start. He identified 6 Principles of social entrepreneurship as a tool to aid development:
#1: Understand the aspirations, dreams and motivations of the the community. In communications terms, know your audience and align one's intervention with their aspirations.
#2: Understand that priorities are not the same as needs. A community may have many needs, but only one priority. The fulfilment of short-term needs may not have lasting impact. Again, understanding the context in which one is operating provides the conditions that may facilitate development.
#3: Move beyond a needs-based approach to development which, by channelling external resources to meet the needs of the community, can reinforce identity and self-identity of communities as deficient in knowledge and resources, and incapable of addressing their own problems. In short, the needs-based approach does not encourage self-reliance or empowerment, but rather frames interventions from external sources as the actions of saviours which in turn can lead to a cycle of dependency. Of course addressing needs provides short-term soft power capital; interventions can be framed as helpful and highlight the humanitarian capacity of the state, organisation or individual. However, this is designed for the short-term interests of the source, not the recipient who may have different needs and priorities (recall the arguments against the kind of assistance offered to the victims of the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s). Helping long-term interests can have long-term and more meaningful soft power benefits
In contrast, Asset-Based Community Development identifies, maps and mobilises the assets and strengths of communities and recognises them as opportunities. Assets can be tangible (schools, market places, religious organisations, natural resources) and intangible (family and kinship networks, experience, memory, etc.). For public diplomacy, targeting your message and using the resources that are already available inside the community will help the success of the message. Both tangible and intangible resources can be mobilised for policy promotion.
#4: Obtain buy-in from the community which in turn encourages local participation. Do not try to impose change and development from above. The two essential components of any public diplomacy activity are listening and discussion, and doing so in way that avoids creating a vertical flow of communication and action.
#5: Likewise buy-in from relevant stakeholders can provide a stream for the acquisition of resources.
#6: Strive to create the conditions for members of a community to empower themselves and to live and work with dignity. Do not try to 'save' a community, but instead understand that ABCD is a facilitator and a catalyst. The belief that a social entrepreneur can empower a community can be regarded as arrogance. As Albert noted in his presentation, 'True empowerment occurs when the social entrepreneur creates the appropriate conditions for the community members to empower themselves.' How much of the literature on soft power and international communications (especially touching upon the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) addresses the issue of arrogance and how the belief in salvation, liberation and democratisation - and of course regime change - is resented by the very communities affected by such interventions and who otherwise should be considered stakeholders? The paternal attitudes and misplaced "good intentions" of much public diplomacy/humanitarian activity can have long term negative consequences
Above all, ABCD provides the foundations for community engagement. Albert emphasised that social entrepreneurs tend to be innovative thinkers, while governments and NGOs can be stuck in particular mind-sets and routines that prevent their success. Again, this is applicable to our understanding of communicative engagement which likewise requires innovation, but too often faces bureaucratic inertia.
I look forward to delving deeper into these ideas and the associated literature, and I would like to thank Dr Albert Teo for introducing the concept of social entrepreneurship to me. This is a perfect example of how interdisciplinarity can lead to new and exciting approaches in the way we tackle our own research areas.