Social Entrepreneurship

David Brooks has an editorial today, Thoroughly Modern Do-Gooders, about how rich entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Bill Drayton are turning to philanthropy and social change through a decidedly different model than a generation ago.  The old model?  “The older do-gooders had a certain policy model: government identifies a problem. Really smart people design a program. A cabinet department in a big building administers it.” 

The new do-gooders come with a different view: “[They] have absorbed the disappointments of the past decades. They have a much more decentralized worldview. They don’t believe government on its own can be innovative. A thousand different private groups have to try new things. Then we measure to see what works.” 

Brooks points to the central problem of scalability.  “How do the social entrepreneurs replicate successful programs so that they can be big enough to make a national difference?”  In my classes and talks, I often call this the franchise model, the McDonalds of social change. 

The central assumption is still the “we can drive change” model—through knowledge, market forces, financing and scientific evidence, we can “rebuild him”—we can make a Six Million Dollar Man out of a broken social body, one involved in a terrible accident of history.  It is rather like my critique of behavioral economics in Decision Making and Emotion.  A definite step forward, but leaving too many things out.  It’s still all about the program, not the social context, not the relationships, not the world view, say of black versus white, that might also impact social change.  Find the right techniques, and we can change the world.


It’s rather like the debate between Jeffrey Sachs, with his message of optimism and moral responsible development in The End of Poverty, and William Easterly, with his critique of the Western-centric development which continues to assume that we knows best and why can’t they be more like us in The White Man’s Burden.  Nicholas Kristof has an illuminating view of the debate in his essay, Aid: Can It Work?  Kristof points to how both authors can contribute to the effort to save lives, and how critique can help us “all think about what works and what does not. That’s painful, but also essential.” 

Bill Drayton’s organization Ashoka is actually an interesting mix, bringing venture capital and expertise to social entrepreneurs already in specific countries.  Rather than development imposed from the inside, it’s the promotion of change through people from within.  Paul Farmer’s work through Partners in Health is similar—outside expertise, provisioning of resources, and working with local community health workers within larger communities. 

Both efforts face the problem of scalability and of working with governments; and governments also face the issue of creating new models for politics and for the management of social problems.  Often the two sides do not meet well—the successful implementation of Head Start as a small program then faltered when made into a bureaucracy as a host of other issues came to the fore—resources, accountability, management of people, discrimination, local tax base, and so forth. 

Social entrepreneurship can work.  Government programs can work.  But a focus on programs, just like a focus on brain mechanisms, won’t tell us the whole story.  Relationships matter, cultural views matter, discrimination and inequality matters, as do people who want to hold onto power (corrupt or not).  And the particular context, and the pathways people took to reach that context where whatever program does its work, those also shape how things change. 

In many ways, it’s a similar problem to neuroanthropology.  Complex, integrated, formed by specific processes across different domains as well as the specificity of certain events, whether historical or development.  Neuroanthropology, or anthropology more general, has that double charge—to attend to how our brains and bodies interact with social environments and lived symbols and inequalities, and also how the interactions of people and environments lead to culture change and constancy at the same time. 

I would like to see programs that start with that—of the change we generate ourselves.  Gerald Murray, who has worked on agro-forestry in Haiti, provides us one example.  As he describes in a recent article (pdf), this applied anthropology work helped farmers take up agroforestry through a focus on assuring land tenure, understanding micro-economic decisions, successful provision of resources, and the encouragement of farmers’ own ideas.  In other words, they “encouraged farmer-induced deviations from project assumptions” while helping to make sure that the overall system didn’t work against the farmers’ own ideas and efforts.

One thought on “Social Entrepreneurship

  1. David Halperin, a medical anthropologist, has a useful editorial, Putting A Plague in Perspective, that appeared Jan 1 of this year. He addresses the necessity of continued attention to HIV/AIDS, and how both the Bush government and The Global Fund have dedicated substantial resources to AIDS programs.

    However, he also brings a necessary critique: “Last year, for instance, as the United States spent almost $3 billion on AIDS programs in Africa, it invested only about $30 million in traditional safe-water projects… Many millions of African children and adults die of malnutrition, pneumonia, motor vehicle accidents and other largely preventable, if not headline-grabbing, conditions… I was struck by this discrepancy between Western donors’ priorities and the real needs of Africans last month, during my most recent trip to Africa… [A]s in many other parts of West Africa and the developing world, inadequate access to safe water results in devastating diarrheal diseases. Shortages of food and basic health services like vaccinations, prenatal care and family planning contribute to large family size and high child and maternal mortality. Major donors like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as Pepfar, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria have not directly addressed such basic health issues. The Global Fund’s director, Michel Kazatchkine, has acknowledged, ‘We are not a global fund that funds local health’.”

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