by Isabel Medem

Nine years ago I co-founded an organisation to design a novel toilet service for poor urban households in Lima, Peru. For a monthly fee we install a high-quality mobile dry toilet in a home and come by every week to pick up the accumulated feces in a container, thus removing hazardous waste from households and communities. This model, which has come to be known as container-based sanitation, forms part of the growing number of endeavours that call themselves social enterprises, understood as organisations created to solve a specific social and/or environmental problem through an innovative and self-sustaining business model. Because of this approach, social entrepreneurship has come to be seen as a way of doing development in and for the Global South that puts the needs of the poor at its core, and that is more flexible and creative than the classic development apparatus. As such, the sector has experienced a significant rise in popularity not only as a development tool but also as an academic field and career path. I believe, however, that there are problematic implications inherent in the treatment of social entrepreneurship as a neutral, pragmatic and ‘impact-driven’ instrument to fight inequality, and that it is necessary to  think critically about the sector even if it means to reflect on something deeply personal and to put my own organisation under the microscope of this critique. The desire for a critical reflection comes precisely from this experience in the sector, and it is through postcolonial and feminist scholarship that I am able to ask a number of pressing questions. For instance – since, by definition, social entrepreneurship avoids discussing inequality as systemic, do we not engage in depoliticizing poverty and in portraying it ‘as a source of shame and individual failure’ (Wilson, 2013)? Where and how is discourse on social entrepreneurship and the imperative for high impact and financial sustainability generated, and is it not a prime example of developmentalism reproducing neocolonialisms in the Global South (Escobar, 1994; Kapoor, 2008)? When we claim that our customers both want and need our toilet system, are we not creating subjects and objects, and therefore silencing the very people we designed the toilet system for (Spivak, 1988)?

Photo credit: Isabel Medem

The impact of social entrepreneurship’s frameworks on representation

The organisation in question was established by a business partner and myself after a successful pilot in Lima in 2012. Our focus was to understand the severe lack of safely managed and dignified sanitation in urban slum dwellings and to explore possible solutions. After successfully testing and then launching our toilet system with households, we needed to search for funding to keep going, and we saw potential in embracing the social entrepreneurship model because we felt it would hold us accountable for our activities by judging our model’s success on its acceptance by beneficiaries, as opposed to the less user-centric and inefficient NGO approach. In order to make ourselves understood in this realm, however, and often dealing with decision-makers whose analytical lens was rooted in finance and venture capital investing and who were, thus, less interested in systemic analyses of poverty, we needed to adopt a depoliticized language to describe our work. And so, we entered the neoliberal development discourses which ‘place agency of poor people (…) at their core’, pushing for ‘empowerment’ and ‘participation’, all of which reinforces the idea that it is the responsibility of individuals to improve their lives and to become ‘managers’ of their poverty (Wilson, 2013, 2015). For instance, we represented our customers as rational consumers who make informed choices to improve their precarious living conditions, or as pioneers of an environmentally forward-thinking sanitation solution. In doing so, we effectively placed the responsibility of overcoming a structural lack of access to sanitation from the state onto unitary households and their ability of deliberation and financial decision-making.

Nonetheless, raising funds this way proved challenging for many reasons. One of them was that our clients do not fit the image of ‘escaping’ poverty so important to international aid organisations: a photo of a family standing next to their new toilet but within their precarious home is an unwanted indication that poverty is, in fact, structural and cannot be overcome through individual action (or through a toilet, for that matter). We have since resorted to highlighting gender-specific benefits of our system, hoping that adopting the World Bank’s ‘smart economics’ argument for gender equality will give more weight to our work, even though it clearly contributes to the ‘feminisation of responsibility and obligation’ (Chant, 2012) and to the reproduction of gender stereotypes. With limited success we also invoke sanitation as a human right in our communications, which is but a manifestation of the paradox that it is a right only for those who are being denied that very right (Arendt, 1951). These are only a few examples of the commonly used representations which we have nolens volens internalized into our way of thinking about the households we serve. 

Shifting perspective through subalternity and intersectionality

None of these concepts, however, truly puts centre stage the view of those who actually live in Lima’s asentamientos humanos[1], of those people labeled rather neutrally as our ‘target population’ in development discourse (Escobar, 1994). To do that, a profound shift of perspective is needed, an attempt at ‘telling history from below’ (Thompson, 1966[2]) that requires that we re-politicize poverty, that we look deeply at its systemic nature and that we make visible that ‘our customers’ are, in fact, engaged in struggles and resistance as citizens. One such struggle directly connected to sanitation is that for water, which, in turn, is connected to that for housing, and both are related to concepts of citizenship and rights. They are also deeply gendered: women overwhelmingly have to deal with the daily burden of managing their household’s water needs[3], as well as carrying out their communities’ political organizing to claim their right for water and housing. And so, in researching this struggle for my dissertation and trying to shift perspective in thinking about the millions of people who live in Lima’s asentamientos humanos, the frameworks of subalternity, together with intersectionality, provided a particularly powerful lens to try to capture this complexity.

Defined by Morris as a ‘predicament’, a ‘structured place from which the capacity to access power is radically obstructed’ (2010), subalternity as a theoretical concept looks at power from the perspective and location of the deeply oppressed and, in doing so, unsettles, interrupts and even changes the ways in which knowledge is produced. Theorizing and thinking about subalternity, therefore, means to recover agency and knowledge of those whose roles in history have been erased and who continue to be denied one as agentic subjects, and who, even when they are engaging in the act of communicating, are not intelligible for the hegemonic ear, and, thus, silenced (Spivak, 1988; Guha in Sharma, 2011). The vigorous use of the theoretical lens of subalternity actively seeks to make centre stage the perspective of those unable to access – and in a state of struggle with and resistance to – power, and it does so by producing knowledge that challenges that very version of history and confronts ‘culture to think of itself from the point of view of its negations.’ (Rodríguez, 2001:9).

Subalternity is not often thought of together with intersectionality, but it is this combination that allows for an understanding of subalternity itself as constituted along various axes of power relations (Hill Collins, 2015; Nilsen & Roy, 2015). The prism of intersectionality for Lima’s subalterns shows, among others, the specificity of their condition as a gendered, raced, collectively dispossessed, invisibilized but also resisting group within a particular urban setting. They are at once right in the city, omnipresent and visible to the naked eye, and simultaneously completely at the margins of society, ‘removed from all lines of social mobility’ (Spivak, 2005). And yet, in their struggle to simply live in the country’s capital, they resist invisibilization by the state and make an appearance as citizens who create their communities from scratch within legal frameworks, and who are fluent in the state’s discourses of development, citizenship and rights. This means that Lima’s subaltern groups are in a constant state of organizing collectively, consciously and strategically, they know the rules and laws that apply to them inside out, and they are perpetually making claims to entitlements to the state. The lens of subalternity makes it possible to conceptualize Lima’s subalterns within a dynamic and deeply intersectional condition, in which agency and resistance manifest themselves within ‘a plurality of context-specific manifestations of power’ (Nilsen & Roy, 2015:12).

Reproducing inequalities as social entrepreneurs

These are seldom the ways in which we would describe the terrain of our work in social entrepreneurship. Instead, the sector looks at problems from the perspective of its entrepreneurs and their solutions. Issues are frequently thought of as in need of one specific fix, heroically discovered by an entrepreneur whose voice quickly gains the weight of an expert speaking on behalf of the poor. As a result, structural inequalities are divided up into individual problems and conceived as isolated from one another so that, untethered from their materiality on the ground, they can ascend into the spheres of international categories, such as the sustainable development goals or supply-and-demand for poor consumers, also known as the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach (Prahalad, 2004). When we engage in this sort of representation, we often omit, or do not even see, systems of oppression and the more complex and longstanding claims that our ‘target populations’ have been voicing and fighting for. We thus, ultimately, silence them. The reason that we can effectively decide what to hear and what not, that we do not even have to properly listen, is also connected to the position of power that entrepreneurs often already come from and always end up inhabiting. Even if we may feel in a constant and exhausting uphill battle with our work, it is undeniable that many of us occupy a particular position of power and privilege, fruit of ‘those places and spaces we inherit and occupy, which frame our lives in very specific and concrete ways, which are as much a part of our psyches as they are a physical or geographical placement.’ (Borsa, 1990) In other words, our position of power may lead us to feel more at home in, and complicit with, the spheres of development discourse than in the perspectives ‘from below’.

Of course, the framework of subalternity is not without its own limitations – mainly, that it constitutes the subaltern as subject-as-agent, creating a ‘ventriloquized’ (Rodríguez, 2001) and, to a certain degree, static form of analysis. To me, however, embracing subalternity means to perform a radical shift in our perspective and to have understood that striving to solve specific problems in our societies does not absolve us from being complicit with their systemic nature and relations of power. We might thus want to turn ‘our anthropological gaze upon ourselves before investigating the Other’ (Kapoor, 2005) and to critically reflect on the ways in which we think about, and represent, our work. This is uncomfortable, it takes time (my own organization’s process of introspection has been going on for almost half a year now), it may uncover and subsequently require attention on dilemmas inherent in our system (for instance, the fact that our service potentially adds to women’s household burdens or that the cost of our service excludes the most vulnerable) and it may result in a more humble, and perhaps political, articulation of one’s work: in our case describing our system less as a perfect solution landing in the homes of people living in a generic context of urban poverty, but rather as an effective and valuable interim solution to a problem ocurring within a context in which communities are actively organizing and legally fighting for infrastructure provision from the state. This, of course, is a less catchy form of branding oneself but as we have seen, understanding subaltern politics (Nilsen & Roy, 2015) exposes the ways in which our discourses might actually be harming the very people we seek to serve and, thus, helps identify what we must improve. As unsettling as confronting the implications of our work in a self-reflexive manner may be, I believe that only by embracing concepts that set a distinct focus on those most marginalized, such as subalternity and intersectionality, can social entrepreneurs direct their creativity, disruptive force and talented teams toward solidarity with the struggles, demands and rights of those at the receiving end of injustice.

Isabel Medem is co-founder and chair of x-runner Venture, an award-winning social enterprise in Lima, Peru. She was an MIT Technology Review Innovator (2014) as well as among Forbes 30 Under 30 social entrepreneurs (2015). Prior to making toilets the centre of her life, Isabel worked briefly in microfinance. She holds an MSc. in Business Management from ESCP Europe, Paris, and recently completed her MSc. in Gender, Development and Globalization from LSE, London. Her dissertation research revolved around Lima’s new subalterns and what their struggle for water says about gender, citizenship and rights. Twitter: @imedemferreyros

[1] Official and legal term for many of Lima’s informal settlements. Literal translation: human settlement.

[2] Source not accessible online, therefore: Thompson, E. P. (1966). History from Below. The Times Literary Supplement, 3345, 279–280.

[3] This means, hailing water trucks, negotiating prices and quantities, boiling or treating the water with chemicals to avoid exposure to water-borne diseases, use the water to cook, clean, bathe and, finally, dispose of the water outside of their house.