Ambition: The Great Disruptor

By Sally Osberg

Technologies that can deliver self-improvement are becoming ever more accessible to those who seek it.

RTR39XIX-615.jpg.jpgStudents practice playing the oud and the violin at the Institute of Musical Studies in Baghdad. (Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)

Statistics help us grasp the massively complex forces shaping the world. Economists, sociologists, journalists and even philanthropists use statistics as a kind of tuning fork to pick up signals of disruption. But underlying all such measures is a force larger and more powerful than anything that can be quantified. That most disruptive of forces is ambition.

In our interconnected, interdependent world, ambition is no longer local, limited to what people see or experience directly. Thanks to the ubiquity of the internet and mobile phones, just about anyone anywhere, including the 3+ billion of the global population living on $2.50 a day or less, now has access to information they could not have imagined even a decade ago.

Ask any of those living in poverty what's important and their answers will be much the same: Ways to provide for their families, enough to eat, healthcare, education, safety, and the dignity of self-determination. In other words, more than half the world's population aspires to what others take for granted.

Ambition translates aspiration into action. It's the secret sauce that accelerates problem solving, spurs entrepreneurship, and galvanizes leadership. Most important, ambition is what drives human beings to improve their lives.

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It's this mega-force, the ambition of countless men and women claiming their right to better lives, that is disrupting a mega-status quo: a world which turns a blind eye to human suffering and indignity, that seems only to take notice when the inevitable eruptions occur.

Indeed, the revolutions continuing to play out in the Middle East show what can happen when a generation fed up with oppression discovers its power to bring about change. But the Arab Awakening is about more than regime change. At its heart is ambition for freedom and the self-determination to secure it; an ambition felt acutely by the region's young people. In Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries, 65 percent of the population is under the age of 30, and unemployment is endemic. The United States Development Program (UNDP) and League of Arab States predict the region will need to create 51 million jobs by 2020 to meet the demand ambition creates.

Absent opportunity, ambition at this scale will foment anger and lead to continued unrest. Fostering conditions for growth and stability requires institutional reforms at every level: in government, education, and the economy. But such reforms are still not sufficient. We also need the human disruptors who will catalyze opportunity--people we call social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs know how to harness ambition for good. They understand that when opportunity is made available, ambition does the rest.

INJAZ Al-Arab , a Junior Achievement affiliate founded by Soraya Salti, is tackling the challenge of Arab youth employment head-on. Based in Amman, Jordan and operating in fourteen MENA countries, the organization integrates business, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy into the educational curriculum. Over the past ten years, 21,000 corporate volunteers have delivered INJAZ's hands-on learning in workforce readiness and entrepreneurship to more than 1,000,000 Arab youth. Hundreds have participated in the organization's Company Program, which encourages them to develop business ideas and then pitch them to local incubators. Oday Amayrh of Jordan, age 24, credits INJAZ with the support he needed to build a successful online video content business, and INJAZ students were finalists in the first global social entrepreneurship competition held in Oslo in 2011.

Appreciating the "need to harness the creativity, vision and viewpoints specific to youth," as the UNDP put it, doesn't only apply to the MENA region. For Dorothy Stoneman, founder of the U.S.-based YouthBuild, this principle is fundamental. YouthBuild helps people ages 16 to 24 work toward high school or equivalency diplomas while developing practical skills. By the time YouthBuild students graduate, they're qualified for employment in fields like construction and prepared to break free of poverty by making their ambitions reality. Over 270 YouthBuild programs across the United States serve 10,000 young adults annually, and the program is being replicated in 13 other countries.

At Bunker Roy's Barefoot College, based in Rajasthan, India, rural women and men of all ages -- most of whom are either barely literate or completely illiterate, with no prospect for employment -- are trained to become everything from dentists to teachers, mechanics, solar engineers and accountants. As Bunker explains: "With little guidance, encouragement and space to grow and exhibit their talent and abilities, people who have been considered 'very ordinary' and written off by society are doing extraordinary things that defy description."

Ambition can seem invisible, but its energy is undeniable. Throughout the world, the ambition of women and men seeking freedom, self-determination, and opportunity is gathering force. Social entrepreneurs grasp what's going on. They see and are seizing the moment, knowing that in the decade to come, this upwelling of ambition can change countries, transform societies, and remake the world.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/11/ambition-the-great-disruptor/265098/