Tag Archives: Western Balkans

The Conscience of the Nation was Born in the Lap of a Saint

I have met many great social entrepreneurs on this journey, and will meet many more. Some will achieve greatness, others will make their own difference on a less grand, but no less important scale. Yet very few will have the impact of Veran Matic, the inspiration behind B92, the organisation which is the single most famous and important social business in the entire region. There is no single person I tried harder to meet than Veran–and finally, thanks to Dragana Nikolic Solomon, had the pleasure of meeting him with his interpreter, Vlada Brasanac, on 20 July 2007. What a story!!

I will not bore you with a lengthy history of B92. Interested readers can purchase Matthew Collin’s gripping book, “This is Serbia Calling” and get the full picture of B92, its background and its impact. During the 1990s and all the “troubles” under Milosevic, B92 became nothing short of the conscience of the nation. It was simply a radio station, initially a not-so-popular one; what it became was, in the words of one person I later met, “the single most important thing to me in my whole early life, period”. B92 took on the Government and provided the only independent voice at a time when all other outlets were under strict control. This was not easy. Employees, especially the Directors, were subject to regular personal threats, the station was shut down several times, equipment stolen and destroyed–and they continued to broadcast, and fearlessly remained independent. Critically they did not become the voice of the opposition–and gave a regular opportunity for the Government and other illiberal forces to state their views, as well, on the air. They were unique only in that they gave listeners the full picture–of the war and its atrocities which the Government was perpetrating in their name.

Today, B92 is a successful and diversified media company. It does TV, radio, publishing, produces movies, etc. It is a serious commercial enterprise, broadcasting programmes with a huge following, such as ”Big Brother” (although their version does have a twist) but at the same time, will follow up with a documentary about the tragedy at Vukovar. It is backed by commercial media investors as well as “soft” money, and partly staff-owned.

Yet refusing to rest on its laurels, it now has strayed further into the social side of the business. A year or two ago it tried to raise money on the air for a “safe house” for women who were the victims of domestic violence. It raised so much money, it built three! More recently, it mounted a campaign for mobile blood units, urging people to help replenish Serbia’s depleted summer stocks (Veran himself gives regularly). Its next project will be a Holocaust-based exhibit that will focus on Serbia’s role in the extermination process. In all three cases, B92 highlights an issue most Serbians would prefer to ignore–they raise money and awareness about these topics–and then they make practical suggestions for moving forward. For example, the Holocaust exhibit will primarily be about tolerance in a general sense, and not be limited to the WWII atrocities, a quality not only lacking in Sebia but all over the world!

So the question is, what makes a guy risk life and limb to do all this. Veran offered a wide range of intellectual arguments, the UN Declaration on the Freedom of Speech, etc. I feel a personal anecdote is much more telling. When he was about 7 or 8, his deeply religious and beloved grandfather was losing his eyesight. To help him, young Veran used to sit in his lap and read to his grandfather from the bible. In addition to reading they chatted about the ethical and moral issues contained therein. I am not sure if Veran is religious–I failed to ask him (a mistake no decent journalist would make!), what I am willing to bet on is that there, in the lap of this great man, is where Veran’s ethical compass and moral courage were formed. But for this, there is no telling how things might have ended.

I can think of nothing else to say, but I tell you this. I am going to pay more attention to what I say when my grandchildren sit in my lap as my own sight fades-perhaps the fate of a nation will depend on it?

So what is this “Catalyst in” thing?

I could pretend to know where all this is going, but I don’t—or even how it started, or why.  I can’t take any credit for how we got here, which was largely, as are most things in life, a series of unconnected accidents, which the order-seeking part of ourselves will then assiduously try to make sense of after-the-fact.  I cannot even take credit for the name, which belongs to Naresh Ramchandani, the Co-founder, with Andy Hobsbawm, of The Green Thing.

We were chatting over lunch one day, and I told him about my upcoming trip to the Balkans.  Naresh said, “this needs a name–how about Catalyst in the Balkans?”  It took me until later that evening to realize this was a double entendre (I am rather slow).  Catalyst, the business, is hosting a trip by me to the Balkans this summer to highlight the best in the region and learn about social enterprise, but as Naresh also saw, it’s about trying to act as a catalyst in the region, to the greatest extent possible.

This adventure, now transformed into an event with a name, moved on to become an institution, when my colleague, Jessica Shortall, announced that she to would be doing a “Catalyst in” trip to Thailand.  Her journey was instigated by PDA, a leading an incredibly innovative social enterprise in Thailand.

A few weeks later, a friend of mine called Angus sent me a wonderful report he had written on innovations in micro-finance in Sri Lanka.  A summary of this report will be published on our website and Angus will become the “catalyst in Sri Lanka.”.  A later chat with my friend Jane revealed her enthusiasm to become a catalyst in another region.  This region is marked by poverty, disease, HIV/AIDS and massive income disparities—it is called East London, and I hope that in time Jane, who works with HIV-AIDS sufferers, and is already a catalyst in East London will become a “Catalyst in” East London.

So you see, this is how institutions are actually born, as opposed to what we later manufacture as the “inspiring” true story.  An idea with no clear purpose is connected to another, creating a trend which then collides with happenstance and ego (?) and takes on a purpose.  To the extent the “Catalyst in” series has a purpose we understand, it is to highlight and study the best and most interesting social businesses and social enterprises from around the world.  In the process, we learn from individuals whose experiences, ideas, tastes, loves, hates and entire world view are more dramatically different from our own than we can possibly fathom.  In the process, one cannot help but learn about oneself, which must be one of life’s great aspirations.  I think that as we progress, those who join us on these journeys, online via our blogs, or physically by accompanying us on these trips as three or four people will do with me in the Balkans this summer we satisfy some deep-seeded needs–to see, to feel, to learn, to experience, to share, and in some cases to try to help.  Welcome to the “Catalyst in” series.