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Where’s the controversy?

Posted Apr 26 2010 3:45am

There are a few more observations that I would like to share about the Skoll World Forum (SWF). Between the many euphoric moments of the conference, generated from participants’ cumulative expertise and active engagement, there were three things that left me thinking:

Where’s the politics?

The discussions about fighting poverty, social justice and climate change were dominated by the conviction that innovative entrepreneurial markets are central to the issue. However, sustainable systematic change won’t only come from individual social entrepreneurs and NGOs but will require governmental and/or global coordination. We need such coordination on a macro-level, since the tasks at hand (such as renewable energies or world trade) can only be dealt with through legislative actions.

Where’s the controversy?

I have seldom been to a conference that was dominated by so much agreement. And that worries me. Because many of the topics are quite controversial and complex. For example, the panel from V-Day — an admirable organization built on the Vagina Monologues and which has campaigned successfully for women’s rights — presented the issue of female circumcision in such a way that excluded the possibility of discussing other serious medical and anthropological approaches to the topic (see for example Carla Obermeyer or Richard Shweder ).  Nor did the panel place the issue in a larger context (the western beauty industry with its surgical needles for enlarging breasts, suctioning fat, or reshaping noses, etc.), a context in which the various methods of assault on the female body should be addressed.

In the same way, the media success of kiva.org was discussed without critically looking at the platform’s strategy for representation. As I previously wrote on a SWF post , Kiva’s breakthrough followed when television viewers were moved by the fact that they could directly support micro-credit borrowers in African countries through their microloans. However, discussions over the last months have brought to light that the microcredit borrowers on the platform are not the only ones to receive credit but are rather representatives of multiple borrowers. The representatives pictured on Kiva have already received their microloans. This practice can be defended since a peer-to-peer platform would require a much higher cost in effort and responsibility. But what had me wondering was why, in a hall full of people who have most-likely followed the so-called Kiva Controversy in the Internet, wasn’t the topic discussed at all?

Where’s the entrepreneurship?

At the Skoll Forum, one could plainly sense an attitude of criticism toward state-run aid organizations and the large, established NGOs. In my view, there is a large list of differences between the older institutions and the new social entrepreneurs, the latter of which choose to focus their energies on a SINGLE social grievance, which they tackle using modern management methods, trimmed-down administrative mechanisms and precise metrics analysis tools (as with The Power of Impact , by Ashoka Fellows).

In a panel about Aid Agencies and Social Entrepreneurship, it was evident that the state-run development aid organisations, with their million-Euro budgets, don’t taking the new players seriously nor do they see social entrepreneurship as having any scalable effects. Jörg Hartmann, the director of the GTZ for Public-Private Partnerships reported that the category “social entrepreneurs” does not exist in German development aid.

But upon further inquiry about how the many new represented organizations are financed, it was clear that few are financially independent but are rather supported by donations, stipends, and public subsidies just as their NGO predecessors have been. The difficulties facing social entrepreneurs in gaining their own financial independence is described comprehensively in this article .

For posterity, let’s please avoid using false premises to build up an enormous easily-popped bubble. Since WWII, the fight against poverty has shown how one ideal after another have failed and led to disillusionment. The idea of social entrepreneurship is worth taking seriously, and shouldn’t lose its legitimacy in the next decades as its predecessors have done.

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