Editor's Letter: Social Enterprise

By June Carolyn Erlick

 The red and orange leaves of autumn drift past my window. It’s hard to believe that more than two months have gone by since I returned to ReVista from a year’s sabbatical on a Fulbright Fellowship in Colombia.

The view out my window in my downtown Bogotá apartment was quite a different one. Heavy clouds of early morning mist floated past my window, obscuring my view of the Andes mountains. By midday, the mountains glowed turned verdant green. The shimmering sunlit intensity of the blue sky reminded me of the technicolor of films from my childhood, turning my view into a picture postcard. I had lived in my apartment a couple of months before I noticed the poor barrio snuggled next to some high-rise white towers just to the right of the mountains. The neighborhood obviously had been there all along, an integral part of my lush green panorama. I just had never noticed the ramshackle mountainside red brick houses with tin roofs. The barrio, I learned, was called La Paz—peace. I thought of the quiet irony of looking at poverty and not noticing it. I had lived in Colombia for nearly ten years in the 1970s and 80s as a foreign correspondent. I reported extensively on poor neighborhoods and the variety of ways people were struggling to help overcome poverty, ranging from job skills training, rights-based efforts around poverty and development, agricultural reform, education campaigns, cooperative movements, political conscience-raising, artistic workshops and even revolutionary organizing. When Roberto Gutierrez and Diana Trujillo of Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes (see p. 13) invited me to the Usme neighborhood to look at a social enterprise project, I welcomed the opportunity. I was interested in whether businesses can turn market-based initiatives in poor communities to achieve meaningful progress in the struggle against poverty. Already, the idea of a ReVista on the theme was in the making. At Ana Delia Ibarra’s day care center, we were greeted with smiles and enthusiasm. A cook was preparing a hot daily lunch, and the children gleefully posed for photos and treated us to welcoming songs. The day care center had been saved from being shut down by the Colcerámica project that allowed Ibarra to meet hygiene standards for the bathroom and kitchen.As I watched the children, I wondered if this business-based solution was an answer to poverty. What was the role of the government? What was the role of NGOs? Even if this type of poverty alleviation worked in individual projects, could it work on a large scale?

On returning to my Bogotá apartment, I glanced up through my window at the distant barrio of La Paz, realizing that projects like that of Colcerámica make poverty visible to those who simply overlooked it. As James E. Austin and Michael Chu indicate in their introduction, “The need for new thinking regarding poverty is as urgent as ever.”I return to the world of Cambridge, to the world of books and ReVistas and seminars. I can only hope that this issue, dear readers, causes you to reflect and debate. Please remember our Reader Forum is open to your ideas. Write me at jerlick@fas.harvard.edu.