Development Issues

Critical Thinking about the World’s Development

From Social Protagonism to Social Entrepreneurship

From Social Protagonism to Social Entrepreneurship


Rui Mesquita Cordeiro 

Recife, Brazil, 17/April/2003


Since 1995 I work as an activist young people in youth social movements, along these eight years I have perceived, with great satisfaction, that many NGOs have been aiming their programs to stimulate youth protagonism. In this beginning of century, I perceive that a part of those adolescents from the 1990s who had participated in such programs, today are conscientious adult young people aware of their surrounding world, and they go further beyond protagonism itself, being true social entrepreneurs, intervening directly within society through their own proposals, provoking and inspiring changes at their surrounding social relations.


But what does being a protagonist mean, in deed? The word protagonist is formed by two Greek roots: “PROTO”, the first one or the main one, and “AGONISTES”, the fighter. In the Aurélio dictionary, it is given this definition: “person who plays or occupies the first place in an event”. From this, we can better try to understand youth protagonism.


According to Grupo Interagir[1], from Brasilia/Brazil, “youth protagonism means, technically, young people to participate as the principal actor in actions that do not say respect to their private, familiar and affective life, but to problems in relation to the common good, in the school, the community or the society as a whole. Another aspect of protagonism is the notion of young people as source of initiatives, of action; as source of freedom, of option; and as source of commitments, of responsibility”.


This perception that the youth can and must carry out actions in front to their world and their own reality is very important, mainly for being a mean of awareness and education that happens not from teaching, through books and words, but from hand-on learning, with the youth occupying a central position in the process.


Amongst these young social protagonists, some act as true catalysts for social change. This generally occurs, from what I have observed, when they, from their critical awareness and vision of world as social protagonists, start to create real proposals for social intervention, that generally are materialized in new groups, initiatives, social projects or organisations, proposing new methodologies for intervention, in the most different fields of social realm (the family, the quarter, the culture, the environment, development, and so on). For their critical temperament towards previously established standards, for their restlessness, creative capacity and spirit to promote transformations, I perceive that these young social entrepreneurs are actually contributing for real changes in social relations.


This transition from being a ‘social protagonist’ to being a ‘social entrepreneur’ is something subtle and hardly perceived or discussed with clarity, including among the same NGOs that stimulate youth protagonism. For such there is still a lack of programs aiming to support young social entrepreneurs, now at this beginning of century. The term ‘social entrepreneurship’ is also not very spread and discussed among NGOs and social movements, and its interpretation is sometimes confused and misleading. The practices adopted by the Social Development Academy Institute, NGO which I dedicate myself and that I helped to establish back in 1999, in the city of Recife, may be highlighting that this kind of young people that surpassed the social protagonist profile towards a social entrepreneur profile already find a support program for their social transformation initiatives, although still on its embryonic form.


But what does being an entrepreneur means? And what about social entrepreneurhip? In the common sense, to be an entrepreneur is associated with the creation of private businesses in the market, but this is a poor form of if applying such term. “The term ‘entrepreneur’ originated in French economics as early as the 17th and 18th centuries. In French, it means someone who ‘undertakes’, not an ‘undertaker’ in the sense of a funeral director, but someone who undertakes a significant project or activity” [2]. Since then, the term has been basically used through a mere economical outlook, with strong bias toward the generation of economic value and the exploration of market opportunities.


According to Gregory Dees[3], “social entrepreneurs are one species in the genus entrepreneur. They are entrepreneurs with a social mission. Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector”. In this sense, the notion of social entrepreneurship does not imply in economics bias; otherwise, as the own term points out its bias is social, rooted in the society’s and social relations matters. E is exactly in this field that the social entrepreneurs act with its groups, initiatives, projects and organizations. That’s the action field for social entrepreneurs and their groups, initiatives, projects and organisations.


Dees highlights five basic, common characteristics to social entrepreneurs: 1) “Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value)”; 2) “Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission”; 3) “Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning”; 4) “Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand”; and 5) “Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created” 3.


While reading such characteristics we can better perceive the differences between being a protagonist and being a social entrepreneur, and even establish some points to evidence some differences.


A great social protagonist characteristic is her or his high level of awareness toward the world and her or his surrounding reality. Despite this fact, protagonists do not necessarily enjoy a central and explicit social mission in their life, or in their group’s life, as it normally occurs with social entrepreneurs.


Another important characteristic of social protagonists is their active participation in the society, through the existing means already handy, in the most varied social instances (the family, the school, the quarter, the city, the country, similar group, on so forth). Social entrepreneurs, in addiction, beyond participating in the existing means of participation also seek to create new means and ways of participation; furthermore, they also look forward in helping other people to actively participate in society, always on track to serve their social transformation mission.


On the one hand, social protagonists do not necessarily dedicate full-time and full-energy on their participation, awareness building and social mobilisation; many times they divide this performance with a parallel professional activity, generating their financial and material maintenance. On the other hand, social entrepreneurs generally seek not to divide their time and energy in parallel activities. Even though such parallel activities might exist at specific moments for survival reasons, social entrepreneurs’ focus is to be able to sustain their basic necessities through their work to achieve their social mission, together with their group, without material accumulation greed.


Altogether, I realise that all the social entrepreneurs are also social protagonists, while the opposite is not necessarily true. Social entrepreneurs, besides carrying out important roles in society, also provoke true social changes from their restlessness while human beings.


Despite the fact that today we can clearly identify some people as social entrepreneurs, in very different fields of social action and very different geographic places around of this planet, there is still a lot to be discussed and actually built toward initiatives and programs to support young social entrepreneurs, starting from the debate itself on the subject, which still generates many controversies and doubts. Another starting point is the observation of the rare initiatives that exist today to support this part of the youth that go beyond its protagonism and start to undertake social change project, in a search for building a new, fairer and more solidary world.



Published in Portuguese at: | 23/April/2003 | 23/April/2003 | 31/October/2003 | 19/March/2004 | 14/September/2004 | 10/March/2005 | 09/April/2006 (last viewed date)


[1] Grupo Interagir is a youth group from Brasilia, in Brazil:,

[2] Dees, Gregory (2001). The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship. Stanford University. | 09/April/2006

[3] Dees, Gregory (2001). The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship. Stanford University. | 09/April/2006


17 April, 2003 - Posted by | Youth

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