Geof Cox's Blog

Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 2 - Vyshniy Volochek & Ostashkov

We received a wonderful welcome in Vyshniy Volochek, especially from Vladimir Samuipov, the deputy mayor and celebrated local historian and writer, who presented us with both a copy of his latest book, on Pushkin's brief stay in the Tver region, and a bottle of the unique herbal liqueur 'Tverskaya' (ТΒΕΡСКАЯ). A man of culture and taste!

Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 2 - Rybinsk

Victor, my interpreter Anna, and I, have driven hundreds of miles through the Russian countryside, between Rybinsk, Vyshniy Volochek and Ostashkov. The countryside in this part of central Russia is mainly silver birch forest, but you pass also many clearings - very occasionally cultivated fields, but mainly wildflower meadows. These are very beautiful to look at, though not so nice at this time of year to actually be in – like most usually cold places the sudden summer heat teams with insects. Little of the land is used except for haymaking and gathering wild food – babooshkas sit patiently by the roadside selling mushrooms, blackberries, and what not. The climate simply won't support most agriculture - even pasture animals are hard to keep. When you get up close the grass is thin and scrubby, the land is covered in snow for 5 or 6 months of the year, and the summer is suddenly very hot

Even more occasionally you pass untidy villages – clusters of little wooden dachas with beautifully carved and fretted windows, usually just off the road. Often, some of the dachas are abandoned – indeed some whole villages are abandoned – another reason for the lack of agriculture and the return of formerly cultivated fields to meadows. Russia's population is shrinking by about a million a year, and with Moscow and a few other cities growing like topsy the countryside seems to be emptying fast. I was puzzled at first by the reaction of those Russians who find out I have 4 children, but soon discovered that it is normal for families to have just one child here, and 3 children makes you officially a Big Family (of which more below).

Social Enterprise in Russia – Week 1 - Moscow, Schekino and Kaluga

Oxfam have asked me to advise them on how social enterprise development might contribute to the anti-poverty programme they are currently running in Russia. I'm now sitting outside the Metropol Hotel just beside Red Square – quite appropriately (for a social enterprise blog) between the Marx Monument and the GUM department store (which has become a cathedral to capitalism) – trying to make sense of my first week here.

What can you say to people about setting up social enterprise in a country where any one of over 90 government agencies can inspect your premises at any time... where most of the inspectors aren't paid enough to live on, so whatever their personal morality they have to supplement their income somehow... and where 80% of the wealth of the world's largest country is concentrated in it's capital city - and outside Moscow almost everybody has only just enough money to live on?

If you've ever done any grassroots community work anywhere you would recognise Alla Novikova. She is the kind of middle-aged woman that is often at the centre of vibrant community groups. Well turned out, both sceptical and full of hope, first to speak up for others, yet clearly herself the heart and soul of the organisation. Her life experience has left her equally at home making policy or tea. Alla is chair of the Schekino branch of the All Russia Society of Disabled People. You might notice the missing finger lost in a train accident back in Soviet times, when she was 25, newly married with a new baby. You probably won't notice, because she'll be wearing trousers, that the train also took her leg. Alla knows what it's like to be disabled in a workers' state, where workers are supposed to be strong.

Social Firms UK Annual Conference

Social Firms UK is to be congratulated on another excellent annual conference this week. I am however unsure about one aspect: the decision to lobby for a waiver of PAYE and NI for any company that employs more than 25% disabled staff. Clearly this would be of enormous help to Social Firms, while at the same time could surely not be seen as special treatment since it would be open to any business. There is, however, always a price to pay for tax concessions – for example in greater regulation – somebody else deciding what 'disabled' means, and maybe changing their mind every other year.

Moreover, there is a danger here that goes right to the heart of the Social Firms movement, and for me this was reinforced by the emphasis several of the conference speakers placed on 'getting to scale'.

What is social enterprise?

Geof Cox 2006Geof Cox at the Inspiring Communities Conference

Why is it that the most intense discussion at every social enterprise event is still around defining social enterprise? Even though everyone purports to be tired of the subject and sees the need to move on?

At the recent Inspiring Rural Communities - the National Rural Social Enterprise Conference I attended the workshop on Developing a UK Social Enterprise Research Programme and witnessed again the core problem with this definition issue:

social enterprise is an activity - a verb - not a thing, so it eludes any attempt to to pin it down to any particular kind of structure or business form

Interestingly, the workshop facilitator's proposed working definition was in fact verbal - doing business not primarily for profit - but when I pointed this out in the workshop the immediate response from somebody was 'but by that definition Tescos could be a social enterprise' - back again immediately to the illusion that social enterprise is something you are not something you do!

Selected past blogs

A social enterprise visit to Mongolia

Mongolia is, as you'd expect, an extraordinary place. The first thing that strikes you is the climate - it's right in the middle of the biggest land mass on earth, and it's high too. Ulaan Baatar is just below 5,000 feet, which if you're used to sea level is enough to take your breath away if you run up 2 or 3 flights of stairs (it did mine anyway) - but most of the land around is much higher. Because of this and the nearby Gobi the air is really dry - at first you want to keep drinking water every few minutes, not because you're really thirsty but because your mouth just dries up all the time. Mongolians call their country 'the land of blue sky' because almost every day is cloudless - if they have visited Europe, even the south, the first thing they say about it is: 'Oh! the sky was so grey there'.

As you can imagine this makes for really extreme temperatures, from 40 degrees in summer to -40 in winter - Ulaan Baatar is the coldest capital city in the world - but even more extraordinarly it can go from hot to literally freezing in the same day. There are deep valleys in the countryside where the ice never melts, so you can stand there dripping sweat from your head but freezing from the knees down! We saw something of the summer/winter change (there isn't really any spring or autumn) on the middle weekend of our visit - going from day-time weather much like a British summer day to the middle of snowy January over just one night.

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