Reconciling Perceptions of Social Entrepreneurship

by tuftsigl
Oct 21

Lizzy Robinson is a junior double majoring in International Relations and Economics, and is a member of this year's EPIIC Colloquoium. 

While reading the handouts assigned for that day’s discussion with Steven Koltai over my Cheerios and instant coffee on Monday morning, I became enthralled by this notion of social entrepreneurship as a focus of foreign policy and a force for peace. It was the perfect nexus between my two interests: international security and economics. Moreover, I had recently finalized my research proposal for NIMEP’s trip to Jordan, which also dovetailed nicely with those themes: I would examine the development of economies and business in the Zaatari camp, and how those markets could be used to reduce social tension. Steven Koltai seemed to be a genius—and a timely one no less. 

And then I met Mike and Curt. As my original, 30-minute meeting with them stretched into a two and a half hour dialogue, everything I was so certain of about my project—realities that I had oh-so-proudly synthesized from various (Western) news sources—was swept into irrelevance by the perennial, powerful force of nuance. What I had missed in my online treasure hunt was that the primary economy in the camp is actually informal, based on rent-seeking activities, and stubbornly defiant of the standard economic theories taught to undergrads. This reality was obscured by BBC and New York Times reports of the heart-warming benefits of commerce within a displaced population; while these news sources are certainly reputable, they, too succumbed to nuance. In this instance, the nuance came in the form of Mike and Curt’s personal accounts of their own experiences in Zaatari, as well as those of the refugees with whom they work. Indeed, nuance would come to permeate all of Questscope’s workshops and events I attended that week, emerging as an unforeseen but compelling narrative that nullified more than one of my (mis) conceptions about the Middle East and its people.

One would think—as indeed I did—that after over two years at an elite American university there would be some things that one knows, that are certain, that are truths one can count on to withstand scrutiny and intellectual onslaughts. But apparently not. Apparently the true value of school lies not in the knowledge it imparts but the social structures it establishes. Apparently a refugee will tell you what they know you want to hear, even if what you want is based on faulty premises and Western prejudices. Apparently showing donors an image of a girl with a hijab and a schoolbook—a fundraising tactic whole-heartedly embraced by the non-profit for which I interned last summer—may not actually be helpful in the least. Apparently I don’t know much after all—and that’s a thrilling notion. 

I immensely enjoy being proven wrong, having my beliefs and perspectives warped and re-formed like a Rubik’s cube. It’s a relief and a joy to be back at the beginning—like that September of freshman year—when no one expects you to know anything, but when there are so many things you can expect to learn. 

Amid all the theories and frameworks, the precepts and principles, and the dates and definitions memorized by students of International Relations, the human element becomes lost in the morass. We forget that the world is not composed of nations—but rather individuals—and we overlook the fact that when we talk about the future of Syria, what matters even more than the integrity of the nation is the safety and happiness of its people. Hearing from Curt and Mike about their first-hand experiences in Jordan brought back this humanity in ways that no academic class or CNN news clip ever could. 

Moreover, it honestly made me question a number of things I thought I “knew” about myself. I thought I wanted to join the Foreign Service right after college—a plan that I had settled on over the summer, while, as it happens, interning at that aforementioned non-profit. While my declining interest in such a career had been a few months in the making, by the time I arrived at the random office complex in Charlestown to take the Foreign Service written exam that Friday, my attitude towards the whole thing was rather blasé—and comically so for someone who, two months ago, was quite affixed to that single goal of becoming a diplomat. However, it does seem ironically fitting that I would find myself taking that exam at the end of a week focused nearly entirely on an approach to international relations that is in many ways the opposite of the one embodied by the State Department. 

Am I certain I don’t want to join the Foreign Service? No. Am I certain that there are other ways to do the sorts of things I want to do with my life, and other ways to become the person I hope to be? Yes. And I’m grateful to Mike and Curt for reminding me of that; my life, too, is filled—and fulfilled—with nuance.

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