The young woman had been listening intently for nearly 15 minutes before she raised her question.
One of the team members of the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation was presenting about the challenges of homelessness and slavery in Vietnam, and sharing stories of how we help kids in crisis.
But the young woman was involved with projects of a different kind and wanted to share her point of view. At the core of her concern was the question:
“Wouldn’t it make more sense to work as a social enterprise, rather than as a charity?”
Charity or Social Enterprise
In the past decade, the concept of the social enterprise has grown rapidly in popularity and in number. From cafes and homestays run as training programs for disadvantaged women, to web development companies exclusively employing people with disabilities, social enterprises take many forms and serve many purposes.
People tend to love the idea of the social enterprise because there’s normally an element of financial sustainability. The company does something good for society, and at the same time makes money, so it is less reliant on donations.
Social enterprises do a lot of amazing work, but Blue Dragon has remained firmly as a charity. Why?
The answer lies in the nature of the people we are helping. Some of the girls and boys we rescue from crisis do at some point go to study in a social enterprise (although they may equally want to go to university, or school, or find employment in a regular company, or simply go home and be with family).
But it’s at the critical moment where we meet them that the concepts of ‘sustainability’ and ‘enterprise’ aren’t helpful.
A Simple Act of Charity
Thu Van’s story illustrates why, sometimes, a simple act of charity is what’s needed.
Just 10 years old, Thu Van has been living a nightmare. She has a loving family and, while they are extremely poor, her home high up in the mountains of northern Vietnam was always a happy place for her.
Earlier this year, during the extended school closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Thu Van was raped by a neighbor.
With her parents out all day working the fields, Thu Van was alone at home and had never imagined that someone could harm her in this way. The man raped her three times before her parents learned what had happened.
In a tiny rural village like this, gossip spreads quickly but services for dealing with trauma are rare. Apart from the pain and fear of the attacks, Thu Van and her family felt alone and unprotected.
Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation provides wrap-around services to children and young people who are experiencing deep crisis, as Thu Van was. So when we heard about this, we sent a team on the long journey to see how we might help.
Thu Van is in good health, but we made sure she has seen a doctor and has access to medical guidance. Our psychologist spent time with both the little girl and her parents, helping them to process all that has happened and to identify what further support they will need in the months ahead.
The rapist has been arrested, and we’ll represent Thu Van in the coming court case. Blue Dragon’s lawyer spent time with the police to review the case and start preparing for trial.
With all of the gossip among the community, Thu Van has felt ashamed and dropped out of school, refusing to go back. So we’ve helped her approach another school, a little further away, and the principal has agreed to enroll her. It’s a chance to make a new start.
And in coming months we’ll continue supporting the whole family, as they’ve been through a terrible crisis and are struggling to cope.
There’s no element of financial sustainability in how we’ve helped Thu Van. Our assistance might not be scalable or replicable, like other aspects of Blue Dragon’s work, but that doesn’t diminish this little girl’s right to justice and to care.
Because this case study gives an example of a charitable response to an individual child, it would be easy to assume that there’s no ‘bigger picture’ with charity – and to conclude that this is a fundamental flaw with the charitable approach.
Considerable resources have been put into Thu Van’s case; but all this effort will not prevent another like it. There will be another case tomorrow, and then another after that.
However, that’s not the complete picture. (And even if it were, that would still not be an argument against offering charity).
Cases like Thu Van’s can be part of a more strategic approach, which charities can play a key role in. Over the years since our inception, Blue Dragon has amassed extensive experience of dealing with crisis situations: we rescue people from slavery, assist homeless children, and provide support to girls like Thu Van.
All of this experience has informed another branch of our work: law and policy reform. Blue Dragon’s work with street boys led to a revision in the law acknowledging that males could be victims of sexual crimes. Our work representing victims of crime led to the issuance of a circular guaranteeing victims the right to a lawyer. And our work with children like Thu Van has led to our latest legal reform project on child friendly police investigations, with specific reference to sexual crimes.
On its own merits, Thu Van’s case deserves care and practical assistance, without the need for a business enterprise to be involved. But there is also a bigger picture, a more strategic outcome, which every charitable action can connect to.
Charity and strategic development can work hand-in-hand.
Social enterprises have a vitally important role to play in global development, and do some tremendous work.
But the need for charity – for simply giving assistance with no hope or expectation of a financial return – will never pass its ‘use by’ date.
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