Diego Carvajal

Ashoka Fellow
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Argentina
Fellow since 2004
This description of Diego Carvajal's work was prepared when Diego Carvajal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2004 .

Introduction

Traditional social movements and government interventions have often failed to win businesses to the cause of social responsibility. Diego Carvajal builds a network of vibrant institutions to help businesses see the value of positive social reform, and helps individual consumers use everyday economic decisions to maximize their political impact.

The New Idea

Diego has moved beyond traditional forms of citizen participation, emphasizing the power of consumers, producers, and investors to effect social change with every economic choice they make. In this vein, he has created a set of new institutions that address the social impact of economic choices. To train the next generation of socially responsible citizens, he has developed a program called Agora, serving students at secondary schools. To promote consumption as an act of empowered citizenship, Diego is starting consumer movements that educate people and provide them practical opportunities to buy socially responsible products. He also supports the growth of businesses, helping them improve their income, introducing them to socially responsible practices, and engaging them in their communities’ social development. In addition, Diego creates micro-level sustainable enterprises in low income communities.

All of Diego’s efforts are carefully designed to reinforce each other. Agora, his training program, produces young people ready to become leaders for social responsibility in the citizen sector and in business. Corporations that embrace his socially responsible standards benefit from markets that Diego has prepared to recognize and reward their social value. Consumers trained through his work make responsible choices, pressing a larger number of businesses to join the movement. Even better, the training program finds a large part of funding from revenue generated by business and consumer programs.

As more and more people accept and advance his ideas, Diego keeps innovating, relentlessly envisioning the next critical step and taking advantage of new technologies to accelerate his plan. He knows that responsible investment is key to lasting change, so he is building a social investment system to offer economic and social returns to investors. Also, he is working out a structure for consumer voting through which consumers will be able to influence the social policies of companies. Finally, he is designing a transparency program to publish key indicators of social responsibility online, bringing real accountability to hundreds of businesses.

The Problem

In Argentina, efforts to achieve much needed social transformation have traditionally been polarized between the government and the citizen sector. State efforts have typically failed in running businesses, health, education, and welfare programs efficiently, and citizen sector organizations in most cases lack the needed resources and structure to achieve sustainable social change on a large scale. Diego knows that no real social change will take place unless two more key actors are included in this model: ordinary citizens who can participate as builders of social value through everyday economic choices, and corporations that can act as engines for transformation, able to create financial gains and social value throughout all levels of their work.

As regards individuals, their only chance to get involved in public issues is through participation in civic, partisan, or religious movements. Today in Argentina, awareness of the critical nature of consumers’ choices does not widely exist. People generally do not realize the power they can exert by choosing one product instead of another. Even when they do realize their power, they lack the information they need to make responsible purchases. Neither protests nor economic boycotts take place to punish corporations that damage the environment or place their workforce in deprived conditions.

With little pressure pushing them to reform, few businesses in Argentina are mobilizing to confront the serious environmental and social problems that face the country. Though many corporations in Argentina are attempting to present themselves as socially responsible, in most cases their contribution is limited to small investments in social projects. Very rarely does a corporation accept social good as a core part of its function. Moreover, in most cases they are unaware of the long-term economic benefits that responsible practices can bring. As a result, many companies pass on easy opportunities to address poverty, pollution, and worker exploitation.

The Strategy

The key purpose of Diego’s new system is to communicate social responsibility to all levels of society and to provide practical tools to encourage businesses, investors, and ordinary citizens to make socially responsible decisions. He founded the organization Interruption to open paths to these new values through a network of mutually reinforcing initiatives.

One such initiative is a training program called Agora, designed to help hundreds of youth become socially responsible citizens. Using a high-impact simulation game, he arouses critical thinking and inspires students to start community projects. Over 800 students from 75 public schools have already participated. Poll results and ongoing community projects show clear evidence of Agora’s effectiveness in changing the youth mindset, and Diego is moving the program forward to include elementary school children and adults as well.

At the same time, Diego is managing a publication en paralelo that promotes responsible consumption and is distributed to 40,000 citizens in Argentina.

Diego’s approach to the business sector begins with the application of a Business Social Responsibility (BSR) Index created by Interruption, which acts both as a certification and training process for companies. The index measures labor conditions, human resources development, product management, protection of the environment, social inclusion, and resource investment, among other factors. So far ten large corporations have committed to this process.

One example of Interruption’s success in transforming the work of corporations comes from their collaboration with B&B Consultora S.A., an export services provider. When B&B decided to apply the BSR Index to their work, Diego and his team met with managers and staff from the company and assessed its performance on each BSR Indicator. They then crafted practical proposals to improve company performance. Through the process B&B discovered that their most critical problem was the huge burden of working hours faced by their employees, a problem that heightened stress and lowered employee performance. As a result of this analysis, the company redesigned its work schedules to avoid the consequences of too many work hours. Moreover, thanks to their work with Interruption, company managers decided to engage their suppliers in community projects, write a document explicitly rejecting child labor among suppliers, and devise ways to save water and electricity in their operation process.

For small and medium companies, Diego offers tools to help grow their business and find markets for their products; in return, they undertake BSR practices, commit to the social development of their local communities, and fund the Agora program in their neighborhood schools. Patagonia Berries, a mid-size Argentinian agricultural business, was in a critical situation when company officials first met Diego. Interruption partnered them with an investor, provided technical advice on how to grow their business, and introduced them to BSR practices. Today the business exports high-quality gourmet products, supplies thousands of responsible consumers, runs several community development programs, and supports the Agora program in neighborhood schools.

Diego also promotes social production in underprivileged neighborhoods; he turns local grass-root organizations into social microbusinesses, providing them the tools to manufacture and sell high-quality products and services to responsible consumers. This system is currently generating employment for 28 families in four different locations, who are devoted to handmade candles, clothes, serigraphy stamping, and sewing.

Through the methods described above, Diego inspires responsible production at three levels of business: corporations, mid-level businesses, and community-based entrepreneurs. Because most of these services fund themselves through corporate partnership, they replicate with quickness and ease. Drawing on his success with businesses, Diego is now refining a social investment system to offer economic and social returns to investors. He has even drafted a bill on socially responsible businesses to spread sustainable practices throughout Argentina’s entire business sector.

Interruption seeks to replicate its successes both inside Argentina and internationally. Within the country, Interruption spreads by locating likely companies and establishing partnerships, involving local citizen sector organizations as it extends the Agora program and other social projects. Internationally, Interruption has spread to an office in New York that attracts investors and buyers for socially responsible goods, distributes the organization’s magazine, and tests and refines the methodology of Agora.

The Person

Diego was born into a wealthy family. He was strongly motivated to find ways to pull down barriers of social exclusion. He spent much of his adolescence backpacking around Africa, Eastern and Western Europe, and Latin America, on a mission to expose himself to diverse cultures and life experiences. He studied economics at university and worked on his own to master philosophy and social psychology.

At 18 years of age, Diego used his gifts of vision and cleverness to envision practical tools that could provoke sustainable social change. He was convinced that a new type of institution needed to emerge that could blend the power of business with the social mission of citizen sector organizations. At age 20 he wrote a script and produced a movie fleshing out a dream for a new culture of social participation. Joining a group of socially committed friends, he organized an alternative art and social festival. This was the seed of Interruption, named after the need to interrupt the status quo and provide a place for new ideas based on new understanding. He was offered a scholarship to earn a PhD in political economy in the United States, but chose to stay in Argentina and work for change. During 2001, amid the worst political, economic, and social crisis in Argentina, Interruption became a space that channeled the social commitment and energy of young people. From these early roots his work has blossomed, extending to thousands of people and businesses across Argentina.