Monday, July 18, 2011

Opinion: Social business should not avoid politics

Social business tries to bring business solutions to fix socials ills such as poverty, climate change or poor education. People get into social business because they believe the free market can help to solve the world's biggest problems. Sometimes they believe in the free market so strongly that they avoid any involvement with government even when the state might help to cause the social ill.

An opinion piece in today's New York Times warns that social business should not avoid government and politics all together. Writer Anand Firidharadas says that social businesspeople will need to bring their results oriented approach to politics.

Many social entrepreneurs treat power as something to work around. They can be clearer in articulating what they are for than in stating what they oppose, and why. They often take the holes of the system as a given and do their best to plug the leaks.

When I put that notion to Rebecca Onie, the chief executive of Health Leads, a social enterprise that trains college students to operate as social workers in U.S. clinics and hospitals, she pushed back and offered an explanation: Ideally, the government would fund the kind of social work she provides. It does not. Rather than fight the government, her group is making the “business case” for the usefulness of social workers, by demonstrating what works and collecting data on it.

Likewise, in poorer countries like India, social entrepreneurs address real needs — bringing solar lamps to villages, teaching women to weave shawls and connecting them to big-city markets. But the elites attracted to such projects are often less interested in combating the underlying structural problems. The villages need solar lamps because the government fails to bring electricity. The women must weave from home because their husbands forbid them to leave.

These problems are not inefficiencies in need of smoothing. They are fights in need of picking. But picking fights is rarely the social entrepreneur’s way.

In the United States, social entrepreneurs have flocked to education, which they say is the key to sustaining American competitiveness. But they have tended to work from the outside, building charter schools beyond the public system rather than taking on the hard but unavoidable politics of improving schools while easing thousands of ineffective teachers out.

When a member of their spreadsheet-wielding tribe, Michelle A. Rhee, actually got involved with politics, by becoming schools chancellor in Washington, she arguably cost the mayor an election and was just as quickly out of a job. That is perhaps why people stay away.

Leslie Crutchfield, the author of “Do More Than Give” and an expert on the field, suggested that activism was part of the learning curve for social enterprises. “Sometimes it takes a while for social entrepreneurs to recognize that such activism is required,” she told me. However, she added, once they do, the best of them are “relentlessly focused on changing the underlying system while also trying to alleviate symptoms.”

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