The Amnesia of the New Social Entrepreneurs

I’m a bit tired of hearing new social
entrepreneurs lay blame for poverty at the feet of foundations and non-profit
do-gooders. At best, they demonstrate amnesia and, at worst, ignorance of the
social history they now boldly claim they will change.

Posts like this always get me in trouble, but a throwaway line by Thomas Freidman in a recent column championing an enterprise in Tanzania set off my reaction. Friedman wrote that Africa needs more capitalists and fewer foundations. I thought it was a cheap shot, but it represents a prevailing attitude toward non-profits and foundations that needs to be challenged. So here goes.

I’m tiring of a blame game that lays poverty at the feet of foundations and non-profit do-gooders. Not withstanding the legitimate critique William K. Easterly makes in The White Man’s Burden, this attitude ignores important historical realities that continue to vex the best economists and planners even today. It also diminishes the legitimate role the non-profit sector has played supporting social change and keeping people alive when they were faced with horrific conditions. It seems to leave no room for creative, innovative partnerships, the kind Easterly says could be effective if risk-taking non-profit visionaries were free to explore. And most importantly, the conversation is missing a key concern many non-profits keep foremost–justice.

References in the Fast Company magazine over the last several months denigrating non-profit efforts to create social change as ineffective charity while advocating the benefits of social capitalism feed the fire of my discontent.

It’s not even that I disagree that social entrepreneurs are a sign of hope; in fact, some are. But we’ve had global corporate capitalism for years, and it hasn’t necessarily transformed developing nations. Easterly provides ample devastating evidence that the so-called “structural adjustment” policies imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund haven’t exactly turned developing economies around, either.

A recent examination of U.S. food aid by Celia W. Dugger in the New York Times is extraordinarily revealing. The article contends current U.S. policy not only slows immediate response to hungry people, it also feeds fewer people than could be fed by purchasing grain closer to the affected area. The program is as much about capitalism as it is about food aid. As it gets implemented, the program lines the pockets of U.S. producers and shippers more than filling empty bellies. It’s serving fewer people today than a decade ago, yet costing more.

Dugger writes, “Over the past three years, the same four companies and their subsidiaries — Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Bunge and the Cal Western Packaging Corporation — have sold the American government more than half the $2.2. billion in food for Food for Peace, the largest food aid program, and two smaller programs, according to the Department of Agriculture.
Shipping companies were paid $1.3 billion over the same period to move the food aid overseas, the department’s figures show.”

Money that could be used to purchase food locally, stimulating internal markets and supporting local farmers, is going to U.S. producers, processors and shippers, and food can take six months to reach hungry people. When asked about de-coupling these funds from payments to U.S. corporations to allow local food purchases, Congressman Tom Lantos of California told Dugger it’s “beyond insane.” Why? Because, according to shipping lobbyist Gloria Tosi, “There’s no constituency for cash.”

To its credit, the Bush Administration is calling for the ability to take some of this money to purchase food overseas. It’s not a new idea. In fact, a lot of folks, including non-profit visionaries operating under foundation grants, have advocated local economic control and participation in the marketplace. It’s not entrepreneurial spirit they lacked. None that I know wanted to make people dependent on outside aid nor create a donor-recipient mentality. But they contended with local officials who wanted to control their own people and corrupt government leaders who wanted their cut first. Local people faced problems getting access to land to grow things, buildings in which to store things, and even storefronts from which to sell things. They often faced guns because local militias or national army officers wanted their part of the action as well. I know this because I’ve looked down the barrels of some of those guns (Brazil, Ethiopia), and I’ve been run out of countries (Somalia), threatened with bombs (Somalia again) and had my passport confiscated (Niger). And many of these corrupt governments were aided and abetted by U.S. policies, or a wink and a nod that overlooked their excesses. So, pardon me if I indulge in a bit of defensiveness at the cheap shots about charity and non-profit foundations and their presumed failures. To put it bluntly, the non-profits I know most closely have long operated on the principle that locally designed and run economic ventures are the only ones that have the potential to succeed. Those imposed from outside are doomed to fail.

I know Mr. Friedman argues new technology is flattening the world. But no matter how flat the world is being made by technology, economic models don’t stand alone. They exist inside a social and political context, and they must coexist within this context. Educational institutions, good governance, democratic participation in the society–the freedom to meet, speak and plan–fair trade policies that allow small producers access to markets and give them fair return on their investment and labor, access to information and the ability to communicate, and enough trained personnel to carry out the multiple tasks of producing, accounting, marketing, selling and delivering goods and services are necessary.

Martin Meredith, in a fine, comprehensive history of Africa since the end of colonialism (The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair) points out that in Francophone Africa at the time of liberation in the 1950s, just 16% of the population was literate. In a population of 200 million there were a mere 8,000 secondary school graduates and nearly half of these were in two countries–Ghana and Nigeria. Meredith says less than 3% of the student-age population was educated beyond the secondary level, and there were no universities in the French colonies.

OK, I know it’s been fifty years and we’re all tired of hearing this complaint, and we can’t blame the current situation on colonialism, and no one is served by looking backward. But in thirty of those years the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. deposed elected leaders, propped up tyrants, and contended for favorable position during the Cold War. To protect its apartheid administration, the former white regime in South Africa engaged in systematic destabilization of neighboring states. And even today in some parts of the continent you can’t get to the capitol of the adjoining country by road and when you fly you must first go to Europe and make a connection back. Yes, cellphones are breaking down some barriers, the Internet has arrived (for some) and other technologies hold great promise. And I’m glad, I’d even like to help these technologies grow. But a little perspective is in order, I think.

Jump from Africa to Central America and remember there were voices for fair trade and human rights a long time ago. They called for access to markets, fair wages and prices, and local control of production. They stood for justice. Many of them are buried in unmarked graves in El Salvador and Guatemala. The only allies who would listen to them were a few religious organizations, non-profits and foundations. So, I’m not against social capitalism. I’m in favor of flattening the world through new technology. But I think a little less rhetorical flourish, if not outright hostility to the non-profit world, is in order. A little more recognition of their effectiveness in standing for the right way to accomplish change wouldn’t hurt, either.

The issue of economic justice runs a whole lot deeper than bringing in social entrepreneurs and booting out the foundations. For the most cogent reading on Trade Justice that I’ve seen lately get the current issue of Sojourners Magazine. It came after I started writing this post and offers a wide range of viewpoints. Particularly interesting is an article by Danny Duncan Collum examining how the mainstream media have covered “free trade.” He argues that mainstream journalists, including Mr. Friedman, are at the top of the list when it comes to unquestioning support for free trade policies, so much so that reporting on trade and justice are distorted. See what he says Mr. Friedman confessed to Tim Russert about his lack of knowledge of free trade when he wrote his first supportive column on free trade.

I would argue that many already know the most effective way to move communities from poverty to self-determination. I’ve written, for example, of Zane Ibrahim of Bush Radio in South Africa. Zane, who operates a community-based radio station in Cape Town, says communities must be enabled engage in conversation with themselves to identify concerns and develop the means to address their concerns. But too often this simple freedom of expression has been repressed.

That’s not the fault of non-profits and foundations. It’s often been the direct result of cozy relationships between repressive leaders and foreign powers, unfair trade policies and the rest of the entangling web I’ve cited.

We need to treat our amnesia with a little dose of historical fact. Doing this might uncover strengths and skills in many sectors that would be beneficial to effective change. The non-profit sector and social capitalism are not mutually exclusive–if both seek justice. Partnerships that build on the best knowledge of both could result in innovation and creative new efforts to end the suffering that results from the economic disadvantage that continues to put world’s most marginalized peoples at risk.

Celia W. Dugger writes a followup article this morning about a food aid meeting in Kansas City this week that pushed the conversation further, and she illustrates how a creative non-profit with social vision is already making a difference. Maybe we need to free up some folks, not run them out or run them down.

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