The figure of the entrepreneur, ranging from the “self-made man” to the “most influential entrepreneur of all time”, has become indispensable in current development discourses. Along with this trend, the private sector has become an increasingly crucial player in shaping key factors of development, be it poverty, food and water security, or climate change. The unequivocal importance of the role of the private sector in development is aptly captured by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP 2018): “[i]f we are to achieve the Goals by 2030, it is not a question of whether to involve the private sector in development or not. It is rather a question of how.”
The call to involve the private sector and encourage entrepreneurship touches upon the question of responsibility, which extends to local communities that are seen as a source of creativity and local wisdom. Driven by a social mission to improve the lives of disadvantaged people and to bring about broader positive change via self-sustaining businesses, social entrepreneurship is emblematic of a new development approach that reflects the spirit of the time. While social enterprises have sprung up around the world, Vietnam, whose entrepreneurial drive has been a recurrent topic in the media, offers particularly fertile ground for this approach. Social enterprises in Vietnam have not only grown steadily both in number and popularity, they have also found a new legal status: in 2014, the Vietnamese government passed a law which made it one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to formally recognise social enterprises as legal entities.
On a global level, social enterprises have gained greater significance as states prove less capable of addressing social and environmental issues on their own and call on citizens to step in. In that way, social enterprises may be seen as a manifestation of what Daromir Rudnyckyj and Anke Schwittay (2014) refer to as the “afterlives of development”, namely, a process marked on the one hand by the state’s withdrawal from its previous role as the main provider of services, and on the other hand by a simultaneous transfer of responsibility to citizens. This process is often seen as a defining feature of the neoliberal economic order, whereby individuals are responsible for their own successes, as well as their failures.
The primary focus of this study lies in the discourses produced about social entrepreneurs, the everyday practices they employ to bring about social change and their different conceptions of what constitutes “a good life”. In doing so, this study follows in the footsteps of earlier anthropological work that considers entrepreneurs as “agents of change” (Barth 1967). Dr. Esther Horat will conduct 12 months of ethnographic research in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and engage with the following questions: What do social entrepreneurs see as good, or as being in need of improvement or support? Through which processes is responsibility assumed individually and negotiated between social entrepreneurs and the wider society? How do social entrepreneurs in Vietnam envision the future, and how do these ideas shape their actions?
‘Agents of Change? Morality, Responsibility and Social Enterprises in Vietnam’ is a four-year research project (2019-2023), funded by the Foundation for Research in Science and the Humanities at the University of Zurich.