Thursday, March 31, 2011

In a place like Oxford...

"In a place like Oxford, simple things are complicated. We study justice, health, equality, happiness, truth....The scope of what we have not yet imagined is vast." These are paraphrases from Stephan Chambers' opening remarks at the Skoll World Forum.

I was quite struck by this line, "The scope of what we have not yet imagined is vast." Oxford is the birthplace of Alice in Wonderland and Dr Seuss studied here, so clearly there are some powerful imaginations in town.

In addition to Chambers, Jeff Skoll spoke - shouting out his support for Muhammed Yunus and reminding us that "We;ve made these problems, we must make the solutions."

This 8th annual conference on social entrepreneurship opened with a speech from an Government professor. Thank goodness. It's reassuring to see the realization that policy matters. That in making "large scale change" (the theme of this year's conference) it's going to take creative, persistent, diverse resources - in other words, all of us - governments, NGOs, social entrepreneurs, businesses, people.

Here's what I took down as Professor Ngaire Woods 5 things governments and social enterprise have in common:
  1. Participatory - global multilaterals now include the people to be affected on their boards - e.g. GAVI
  2. They have a task focus - one problem, not whole system
  3. New ways of working with the beneficiaries and users
  4. Demand driven approach to problem selection
  5. Results based legitimacy
Here are three things we need to be cautious about as government starts to learn from social enterpreneurship
  1. Including the constituencies in the leadership makes them stakeholders in the status quo, they lose their key role as external rebels/account holders
  2. Task focus raises problems of priorities. Who is choosing the tasks and which ones are being left out?
  3. The demand focus and market approach can us to underinvest in watchdog functions - who oversees food systems, nuclear industry, financial services if we don't invest in government to do this separate from corporate interests?
In introducing the panel on Microfinance, Chambers reminded us that "There's always a however in Oxford." Microfinance is the poster child of social enterprise. Its poster child, Muhummad Yunus, is part of a "political witch hunt." MFIs are being called out for the issue of overindebtedness (see this Tumblr post on this panel.) It's a calling to account moment for social enterprise. I'm curious and excited to see how this proceeds.


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