Social ventures in authoritarian countries should combine ‘protective disguise’ with ‘harmonious advocacy’, says study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School.
Social ventures provide increasingly important services in countries seen as “authoritarian”, but have frequently aroused suspicion and drawn the wrath of such governments. A new study co-authored at Cambridge Judge Business School outlines how such ventures can gain legitimacy and thrive.
The study published in the Academy of Management Journal argues that such social ventures should seek “optimal assimilation” through a two-pronged approach: “protective disguise” coupled with “harmonious advocacy”.
“Organisational legitimacy may need to be conceptualised differently when examining social ventures – and indeed other forms of organisation – in authoritarian regimes,” says the study, which notes that research on social venture legitimation had previously focused on developed democracies with institutionalised civil liberties.
Creating social ventures in authoritarian regimes ‘dangerous’
Yet social ventures are prevalent in more than 50 countries governed by “authoritarian regimes” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit – and creating such social ventures “can be outright dangerous”, risking censorship and political sanctions if the venture’s agenda is seen to clash with government interests, the authors say.
The study focuses on a social venture in Egypt named Amal (a pseudonym, meaning “hope” in Arabic) to further access and other rights for disabled people, who make up nearly 15% of Egypt’s population but have long faced exclusion and discrimination.
Mass protests in January 2011 led to the Egyptian Revolution that ushered in several changes to Egypt’s government, yet Egypt ranked 137 of 167 countries on the Economist Intelligence Unit democracy index (2019) and was classified as “authoritarian”. A new terrorism law enacted in 2015 was criticised by some observers for using a “broad definition of terrorism that also included social activism. For example, individuals could be accused of orchestrating peaceful demonstrations to mobilise anti-government efforts,” the study says.
Social change agenda was cloaked behind ‘innocuous’ facade
Early on in its journey, Amal used “protective disguise” to “cloak” its social change agenda, deliberately taking on the appearance of an “innocuous” service organisation and limiting public advocacy. Although it took the legal form of a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Amal “camouflaged” itself as a consulting firm offering accessibility services to make public spaces and tourism more accessible.
“Rather than framing its mission as being about human rights issues, which was likely to be viewed as politically subversive, Amal rhetorically constructed congruence – or ‘functional overlap’ between its goals and those of the government. This meant emphasising how Amal’s efforts to support disabled people helped promote social stability, economic prosperity, and national interests, rather than social reform.”
After this strategy allowed Amal to be perceived as non-threatening, the social venture switched to “harmonious advocacy” that was seen as constructive and in support of the interests of political elites.
“This was evidenced by the increasingly positive evaluations of Amal that we encountered across multiple audiences and by the growing number of corporate and public sector partnerships in which it was engaged,” found the study, which was based on two lengthy visits to Egypt by co-author Isabel Neuberger, an Arabic speaker, 45 interviews and other material including public speeches.
Karnak Temple in Luxor made more accessible
The social venture became recognised in the Egyptian media for transforming Cairo’s urban landscape, including malls and factories, to make them more accessible, and it established more than 1,000 corporate and public sector partnerships. Among Amal’s major projects was a 2018 partnership with the government in Luxor to make the popular Karnak Temple, an important tourism site, accessible through installation of ramps and tactile paving.
“Crucially, it was increasingly accepted and praised by its key audiences: private sector companies, non-disabled employees, and government authorities,” the study says. “At the same time, we also noticed that Amal sought to promote its social goals by emotionally engaging audiences and building empathy for disabled people.”
The authors say that while their results are based on a single social venture in Egypt, “we believe that the core insights are transferable to social ventures in authoritarian contexts beyond Egypt and to social issues beyond disability exclusion.”