Sunday, May 9, 2010

Thinking About Social Entrepreneurship

Someone very wise once told me that instead of learning to motivate people, I should only work with people who are already motivated. Unfortunately, during the last few years as I've worked as a teacher, that's not exactly been an option - I can't choose to only teach students who are already motivated to learn; I've often considered that one of the most important parts of teaching is getting students to care about the subject matter.

As Sarah and I have started CF, however, I've had to consider who our organization exists for. The wisdom of my friend definitely comes to bear on this situation. When it comes down to it, I don't think we are a typical charity or aid organization.  I believe that CF exists for people who have needs but don't view themselves as needy.

Over the years since I first visited Sudan, my thinking about charity and aid has changed significantly - largely due to a lot of reading about social entrepreneurship. Simply put, this is the belief that people in poverty are not merely victims in need of assistance but powerful actors who have significant insight into their role in alleviating their own poverty.

In the past 18 months both Sarah and I have read 4 books that have influenced our thinking about how to best address poverty, so I'm going to give a quick rundown of those books for those who are keenly interested in understanding our paradigm as CF goes forward.  I want to make it clear that I don't see social entrepreneurship as a silver bullet, but I do think it's a largely unknown or misunderstood paradigm in the West, and so I wanted to introduce these books to any who might be interested.

In chronological order based on when we read them:

Banker to the Poor, Muhammad Yunus

Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty

I like to joke, in my ever humble manner, that I won Yunus the Nobel Peace Prize.  Long story short, a professor at the University of Denver named Tim Sisk teaches a course on the Nobel Peace Prize in which the final project is to write a complete nomination for the award.  Sisk then submits his students' nominations to the committee.  During my senior year, a friend of mine was talking to me about the course and wondering who he should nominate, and I told him about Yunus and the Grameen Bank.  Later that year, when the committee announced the latest crop of laureates, Yunus was among them.  Thanks to me (and the tons of people who recognized the genius of his work and how effectively it has combated poverty the world over).

Yunus was one of the pioneers of microfinance, or microlending, the idea that people in poverty could escape poverty if they had better access to credit to finance their own informal businesses.  Yunus is quite the iconoclast, and in Banker to the Poor he is openly hostile to the mainstream development world and the way that it marginalizes people in poverty, viewing them as victims rather than partners.  The level of dignity he accords his clients at the Grameen Bank is one of the most inspiring aspects of his work, and he's admirable for giving up the world of theory for the world of practice.

The book itself gives a superficial look into the actual operations of microfinance institutions, but it's enough for a novice to gain a basic understanding.  To his credit, Yunus also recommends a few books that someone looking to get into microfinance might want to read (he also suggests that they should get a master's degree).  

This book propelled Yunus to the top of my list of people I'd like to have dinner with.  He still holds that position.

2.  Out of Poverty, Paul Polak 
 Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail (BK Currents (Paperback))

Paul Polak's approach to development is simple: the reason most people are poor is because they don't have enough money, so the solution is to help them make more money.  His organization, International Development Enterprises, designs products to help people who earn less than a dollar a day do just that.  His book, while rich in personal stories and his philosophy of how to go about doing that (the gist of which is, run it like a business - make sure there's demand for it and that it can be brough to market profitably), is the bible of how to go about doing that.
 Of all the books on this list,  Out of Poverty is by far the most practical.  It explains how to actually make money from a farm smaller than one acre, what actions to take to solve practical problems, steps to take before even attempting to bring a product to market, and rules for designing cheap but useful products for people in poverty.  

While other books gave me a sense of hope, by the end of this book I felt like I had a guideline for how to actually go about doing something.

Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Vintage)
This is probably the most popular (and most recent) of the books on this list, and it's the one that is least directly concerned with social entrepreneurship, but it provides the broadest survey of different nodes of social entrepreneurship across the world, even though it's a book about women's rights.  The title comes from a Chinese proverb (actually, one by Chairman Mao - which they don't exactly trumpet) about how women hold up Half The Sky and should therefore be treated as equals in every aspect of community life.

Kristof & WuDunn were the first husband-wife team to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, for their coverage of the Tiananmen Square massacre.  He remains a journalist and is an Op-Ed columnist at the
New York Times, which partially accounts for the popularity of the book.  What accounts for more of its popularity is the fact that it is impeccably researched and reported, finding Kristof and WuDunn all over the world digging up stories about women who have undertaken programs to empower and benefit other women.  

I had read almost all of Kristof's columns that went into writing this book and still found it informative and inspiring.  It's a quick read and concludes with an excellent call to get involved in ending the oppression of women with very practical steps for anyone to take, regardless of who or where they are.
4.  The Blue Sweater, Jacqueline Novogratz
The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
Lots of books written by development practitioners (really lots of books in any discipline where the author doesn't have to be a writer) can be painful to read.  That's not to say that they're bad, just poorly written.  Despite the fact that Novogratz is a banker/financier by training and experience, this book sings.
Part memoir, part introduction to the role of the free market in overcoming poverty, Novogratz guides the reader through the experiences working in Rwanda and other parts of Africa that ultimately led her to found Acumen Fund, a non-profit venture capital firm that funds entrepreneurs developing products and services to overcome poverty.

The beauty of The Blue Sweater is that it is a personal story, one in which Novogratz invites the reader into her greatest successes as well as her deepest failures and does so with candor and heart.  She deals with the complexities and nuances that Americans and other Westerners face in working in the developing world, and she eschews simple answers in favor of a very morally complex approach.
Her story is at times heart-breaking and at times uplifting, but by the end it is very clear that Novogratz has found a meaningful life for herself and helped myriad others create meaning for themselves as well.  And, at the end of the day, isn't that we all want?  

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