Nostalgia Hit #1 – August 2006 the start of my journey in social enterprise and the elusive search for the magic bullet.

Whoa.  Has it been TEN YEARS already since my first degree from Canada and my 10 year relationship with Facebook?!  How did it all fly by so quickly?

If you want to enjoy this article with nostalgic 2006 beats – pick one of the songs here!

So, August 2006.  In Beijing.  Learning Mandarin.  Just been accepted to the School of Oriental and African Studies for International Development that was to start in a month.  Time to pack it all up and head to the Big Smoke.  How much did I know?  Enough to pick a focus on Central Asia apparently.  Then on arrival, find out Central Asia is NOT Sichuan Province, China – but actually Kazakhstan and all those other Stans.  No Kelvin, they don’t have Pandas in Central Asia.  I actually had to look it up on a map after my first class.  NO JOKE.

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I had the I am supposed to be Smart hat on after a year but only found out where Central Asia was after my first class.  FYI – they don’t have Pandas there.

What did I learn in my Masters in International Development (MSc)?

Here’s what I can remember.

  1. There is such a thing as a free lunchlook no further than the Hare Krishna at SOAS.  No MSG, all vegan and just the right ‘hit’ before nap time in the library before hitting the books again.
  2. International Development started post ww2 – with things like the Marshall Plan, a series of decolonisations and the need to ‘develop’ the underdeveloped.  Having studied 20th century history, this was taking a look of the legacy of that war from a different angle.
  3. Development had two camps.  Market based neoliberal policies that were  pro market and the other guys, who were all about grassroots, rights, protectionist approaches and it all had a tinge of Red (read: Socialists) to it.  Basically USA + Friends vs. USSR and friends.
  4. There was a lot of development money going from Western and Communist countries from the 1950s to 1990s.  A lot of money.  Trillions.  A lot of it fell into corrupt hands.  A lot of it couldn’t be measured.  It’s pretty much summed up in William Easterly’s book, White Man’s Burden here.
  5. When you go to the year end party dressed as the Dude from the Big Lebowski and drink White Russians all night long (with organic milk of course)… do not, under whatever circumstances mix it with any beers or shots.
  6. 1989 was the year that the Soviet Union ‘collapsed’.  The West, with it’s market based approach and Neoliberalism had won.  Globalization, and not protected state owned enterprises had won the championship.  Globalization and privatization of state owned enterprises is set to hit warp speed in the 90s.
  7. Even with a Masters Degree, NOBODY WILL HIRE YOU BECAUSE YOU HAVE NO EXPERIENCE.  Hence, my first year as a Masters Graduate?  An intern. and then more internships.  Supplementing my £5 a day expenses claim from XYZ charity was private tutoring (teaching about terminal moraines in Tooting)  and teaching spin classes.  After a while, I really needed a job, so decided just to start something.  BTW – this is the site that I found most of those internships –  It hasn’t really changed in ten years either!
  8. Social Enterprise wasn’t the ‘cool’ thing 10 years ago.  Back then, there was still a student rate for the Skoll Social Enterprise World Forum.  Now you have to be invited!  When my friend wanted to do her dissertation on it, the professor said do it on something with a little bit more ‘history’ behind it.

That’s what I learned.  So its been ten years now,

Where are we now?  Social Enterprise and it’s new rebrand or catch all ‘social innovation’ is definitely more hip than the local ice drip single estate coffee at your local revitalised area coffee corner.  It’s so hip, we’ve got a whole week on it.

We all can say social enterprise is ‘great and the way forward’ and that we should support it.  However, it is at this point that all my training in article critiquing from university comes back.  Before we get on this Magic Bullet Train and ride it all the way to Equality and Social and Economic Empowerment valley we’ve got to ask, what does it leave out and which assumptions are we taking as we are on this train.

If you’re on the social enterprise train, what we’ll need to believe is that –

Market economics is inherently good and social enterprise is a rediscovery of the good of the market after years of (mostly) men behaving badly.  We just need more good people (probably more women) doing business in good ways and we’ll be good.

Neoliberalism and the market isn’t broken.  It just needs to realign itself with the people.  Micro finance institutions is a great example of this.

Better, more inclusive, more equal business is the solution to the woes of our world.

Despite the leftist brainwashing that I received at SOAS (yes, it’s pretty much a socialist hippie haven), that’s what I believed in as well, especially during the time when I ran FoodCycle.  Creating a business and creating practical sustainable market based interventions or competitors or partnerships was the way forward.

But after so many years, I’m starting to question it.

Don’t get me wrong, but still believe in the power of social enterprise, but now, I see it as a part of the solution, whereas I really think that the sense right now is that it is a magic bullet for all of societies woes.

We’re a small part guys – remember that, next time we write our funding proposals, don’t write it like the idea is the greatest thing since Micro Finance! (but I know you have to, to get funding…).

So what does it leave out?  What doesn’t social enterprise address?

  1. Consumerist culture

My guess is, why social enterprise is so great and cool is that it fundamentally doesn’t dispute that unsustainable consumerist culture that we live in.  It’s ok.  Just consume more ethically.  It’s ok.  Neoliberalism gas rebranded.  Keep consuming.  It’s ok – It’s Tom’s Shoes.

While developing countries probably need more consumption, but for you readers in the global ‘West’ – What we actually need is just less everything.  Not consuming at all.  Put the money into savings, or send it to a charity that needs it.  You really don’t need another pair of shoes.

So before you try on that new pair of Toms, try minimalism, going vegetarian a couple days a week, or do a staycation or low carbon travel.  All these things can help your wallet and the earth.

2.  Political stuff.

Politicians still have huge power.  I really try to steer clear of discussions around politics but you have to admit, there is power and BIG budgets here.  What are they responsible for?

  • Energy policy
  • Welfare
  • Military Spending
  • Education
  • Foreign policy
  • Human Rights

While we continue to be that ‘social entrepreneur’ in the spotlight, running your business and what not, we gotta put things into perspective.

However big you grow your company into, don’t forgot, there are bigger campaigns and struggles out there that we need to lend our support to make big changes.

I stupidly thought it was all social enterprise, social enterprise, social enterprise.

I used to shun ‘campaigning’, ‘protesting’, or ‘marches’ – but after all these years, I think they are ever more important to stay united for the greater causes out there.

Just take one example, why don’t we spend some of that ‘defense’ money and invest it in renewable energy?  We’ll have less reasons to go to war if we’re energy independent!

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Source: Huffington Post

I know these changes will take a long time, but we must not forgot about campaigning and lobbying politicians, as these have far greater ramifications that even the greatest social enterprise that we can build.

3.  Competition.

It’s really my thinking that what got us here in the first place was competition.  Inherent in us is we always want to be better.  Faster.  More efficient.  Stronger.  Than our neighbours.  Friends. Companies.  Other social enterprises. Other countries.  You know what I mean.

If social enterprise is the nicer rebranded version of neoliberalism, then it will have at it’s centre the key value – competition.  Social enterprises in a passive aggressive or very public way, is actually competing with other social enterprises and mainstream businesses for consumer spending for our goods and services.

But look where it has gotten us.  Small, disunited efforts to tackle issues that nobody can tackle alone.

But if there is one thing that we need in this space, it’s actually collaboration.  How many small social enterprises fight their own little corner.  How many similar services do all the NGOs of Hong Kong replicate.  How many soup runs are there in Shum Shui Po?

I argue that if we are going to benefit those in need, and be able to scale those benefits, there is only one way forward.  Collaboration.  Not competition.


 

So in summary, as we continue on this path of social enterprise, next time over the weekend and you’ve got some free time where we’re not speaking at a social enterprise event, try this –

  • Support a cause through volunteering or campaigning on an issue that is even greater than the one you’re working on.
  • Just don’t buy stuff.
  • Or pick up William Easterly’s White Man’s Burden and learn about the events that led you to here…

 

 

 

 

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