Entrepreneurs vs. Scale

Does entrepreneurial energy trump traditional development models reaching for scale? In their recent book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide , Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn draw a distinction between the older traditional model of development that attempts to reach the greatest number of people and the entrepreneurial model that concentrates on changing one life at a time, or empowering change in a small group of participants.

They acknowledge the polarities aren’t fixed, but in general they raise up the work of individual entrepreneurs as models. They also repeat the case made by others that large scale development hasn’t been effective nor long-lasting.

This is a common analysis and it needs scrutiny. There is no question that large scale development schemes conceived top down haven’t reached into rural villages and changed life for the better. On the other hand, without a commitment to scale polio would still be leaving a toll of human suffering in its wake that would be an ongoing tragedy. There are interventions where scale is not only desirable, it’s necessary if the problem is to be adequately addressed.

This isn’t to miss the point that Kristof and WuDunn make that empowerment of oppressed women is an effective avenue to change. The model has been around for years, but it hasn’t gotten the traction it deserved for several reasons. It has been the preferred model of many mainstream development agencies such as Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief and UMCOR. However, their efforts were pioneering, occurred under the radar of the media and didn’t have the charismatic asset of an individual entrepreneur. They were institutional models operated without effective marketing by bland institutions and they were often competing for media attention with the large scale efforts of the World Bank and UN agencies.

I read Kristof’s and WuDunn’s narrative with great appreciation for their revelations of the awful oppressiveness of sex slavery. They tell the story with such effect that surely readers will sign up to provide micro loans or support other efforts they provide. And their explanations of culturally appropriate interventions at the grassroots are especially important for us to consider.

They also make a strong case for engaging in long term, sustainable development in contrast to short term one off charity. No disagreement here. The impulse to charity is positive but it, too, needs scrutiny and careful reflection. Charity can do more harm than good without this reflection.

I’m grateful for Kristof and WuDunn’s voices, commitment and willingness to enter into danger and hardship to tell us about the plight of oppressed, poor women. It’s powerfully motivating and illuminating. They lay out the practices of a new expression of humanitarian engagement, one that will surely grow and create necessary change.

But I’m not ready to give up on working to achieve scale, just yet. And I’m interested in seeing where the entrepreneurial models lead. I’ve seen entrepreneurial models that are as fragmented, duplicatory and wasteful as any other effort. The best effective example is the Grameen model and it has grown at scale and institutionally as well.

Never the less, the needs, as Kristof and WuDunn point out, are urgent and their call to action is welcome.

2 Responses to “Entrepreneurs vs. Scale”

  1. Joe Moran December 30, 2009 at 12:39 pm #


    Finally got around to reading your comments on entreprenurs vs scale and found it very helpful. I think that one of the things that makes either model work is the passion with which development workers (from those at the project conception level to those at the community level) do their work, paired with consumate regard for the dignity and potential of every person invloved in the project.

    I like your blog, and wonder what kind of feedback you are getting on it.


    PS Hope to get over to Nashville again in March (The Nashville CROP Hunger Walk is Sunday, March 28th), if not before then.

    • Larry January 1, 2010 at 9:49 am #

      Hi Joe,
      Thanks for the comment. I think the tendency to push for one or the other of these two models is probably too simplistic. Both can work. Given that both have strengths and weaknesses, of course, but I’ve seen circumstances where the two wedded together were beneficial to each other and could work in tandem. This is true when an individual needs broader support than even a community base could offer. Benefitting from a larger network was an asset.

      I find Michael Gornik’s (City Seminary and Sandstone Community) opinion to be useful. “At a community level, institutions are intermediary structures. They stand between individuals and large-scale forces. We need places where we can interact together in order to impact, to be effective with a lot of macro forces, whether economic or political. So at one level it’s crucial for society that we have strong, local institutions. It makes for a much healthier common life in the public sphere. But from a theological and ministry standpoint, institutions are the means of enabling people to flourish. You need strong institutions for sustainability and for the flourishing of gifts and abilities.” http://www.faithandleadership.com/

      As for the blog, I get more feedback through direct email than comments. Sometimes I think I’m interested in issues that are not necessarily blog material. But the quality of responses I get are mostly very informed and perceptive. I could do a better job marketing, I imagine.

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