The social entrepreneurship world is all atwitter about the latest New York Times column by David Brooks which questions the effectiveness and strategic usefulness of social entrepreneurship. On some level it feels hardly worth responding to, just check out the opening paragraph:
If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good….
So, this is clearly going to be another one of those columns typical of David Brooks-types, to take their limited personal experiences and exposures to what’s happening in the world beyond their local coffee shops and think tanks and spin that out into a grandiose theory to describe some supposed trend in the world. So you can guess what’s coming next:
It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.
That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.
World, meet Brooks’ latest straw man, a caricature of social entrepreneurs based, it seems, on a few people he has met at “a certain sort” of coffee shop and conference, although he doesn’t tell us what sort that is (presumably the sort that draws someone like David Brooks).
This is almost too-silly on its face to waste effort on, as the google search Brooks clearly couldn’t be bothered doing will instantly turn up numerous social entrepreneurs working on exactly these issues: increasing the rule of law and reducing corruption, both in the United States and all around the world.
Brooks is right that a country where law and order have broken down is not fertile ground for social entrepreneurship. You won’t find a lot of NGOs in Somalia. But surely no-one would argue that business and government should be left simply to monitor themselves? Once democratic rights are won they must constantly be maintained and re-imagined to serve the needs of each generation. It feels particularly odd for a conservative like Brooks to dismiss the role of citizens to hold the political system to account from the outside.
Hence the need for third sector players like Transparency International, founded by social entrepreneur Peter Eigen, which works to expose and reduce the culture of corruption worldwide, exactly the sort of initiative Brooks seems to be calling for. Change.org, founded by Ben Rattray, just listed as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year, is expanding political participation and involvement, the Cost of Freedom Project is working to help people register to vote, the starting point for political participation in the US, and organizations like Teach for America, Global Citizen Year and The Association of Young Americans amongst many many others are inspiring the next generation of involved citizens.
In Australia organizations like Vibewire, Our Say and Left/Right play a similar role. Third sector advocacy organizations like GetUp in Australia, MoveOn in the United States and Avaaz globally, and those like them focused on every issue you could imagine, very directly engage in lobbying government and mobilizing public sentiment around specific policy debates. You could literally go on listing social entrepreneur-founded and led organizations which engage directly with the political process all day, hundreds of counter-examples to what Brooks claims is the “prevailing ethos” of social entrepreneurship which seeks to “evade politics”.
Naturally you could also list (and meet in coffee shops) social entrepreneurs working to affect change outside the political process, on issues like hunger and landmine removal, educational reform and peace-building, leadership development and mentoring, inventing more sustainable technologies and distributing life-saving medicines and everything else you could imagine. Do all these social entrepreneurs successfully change the world? Of course not. But market failures and government negligence abound and working to support each other locally, regionally and internationally is both a form of community self-preservation and a fundamental human instinct which has saved and changed millions of lives.
In the diversity of efforts arrayed against a variety of challenges we find things that work and, often in partnership with government and increasingly with business, push those solutions forward to reach greater levels of impact, to save more lives, empower more communities, facilitate greater participation in our democracies and support those still fighting for that same opportunity in their countries.
We need all these changemakers, and more, to bring about change on all scales and create better futures for our communities. We need to support programs that inspire new people to get involved in creating change, not deride their desire to serve as naive and ineffective as Brooks does. Social entrepreneurs are the innovators and risk-takers of civic society, often pioneering new approaches which are adopted and scaled by governments, and holding governments responsible for the impacts of their decisions. Their optimism is based not on naivety but pragmatism, on being resolutely focused on getting things done.
I only hope that Brooks chooses his coffee shops and conferences a little better in future as I’m sure he’d learn a great deal from greater contact with a wider spectrum of social entrepreneurs and come to appreciate the many ways their passion and commitment manifests in an open society.