More thoughts on philanthrocapitalism and policy orphans

As a follow up to yesterday’s post, I came across the press release from the Skoll Foundation on their latest grantees who are receiving unrestricted funding from the foundation. In light of the Edwards debate is interesting to look at these organizations as “social entrepreneurs” and their “civil society” impact:

Bioregional Development Group: London-based, focusing on sustainability
EcoPeace-Friends of the Middle East: focuses on water and politics in the Middle East
Gaia Amazonas: a Columbian non-profit that partners with indigenous communities in the Amazon on conservation issues
Injaz al-Arab: teaches business skills and entrepreneurship in the Middle East
International Center for Transitional Justice: works on transitional justice issues in post-conflict societies
VisionSpring: micro-franchises for vision goods
Water Partners International: microcredit for access to safe water supplies
Apopo: the organization that uses rats for landmine clearance
Teach For All: the well-known social business that provides educational services

Now, if we look at the Edwards/philanthrocapitalism debate with this small sample of grantees we see that the claim that social enterprises must necessarily diminish civil society becomes a bit murky. Transitional justice is inherently about ‘civil society’ and there are other social entrepreneurs working in this area such as the Media and Policy Center (disclaimer: I’m a friend of Harry Wiland). It is clear to me that the field is rather vast and the underlying politics of organizations are rather diverse as well. Understanding the typologies of social entrepreneurs and framings of issues will be important to contribute to our understanding of the field (rather than just engaging in polemics based upon straw men of each side).

Nevertheless, as I mentioned yesterday, I think the piece that Edwards wrote is important if we use it as a stepping stone to think about emerging issues such as the ethics, politics and social impact of social entrepreneurship since norms, values and ethics are supposed to be the bedrock of what social entrepreneurship is about. The approach I’m interested in taking is to look at how social issues get framed as a problem that can be fixed by “social entrepreneurship” and paying attention to other framings or issues that are orphaned by any particular framing. All policies, all interventions ‘orphan’ some–there is no one size fits all approach. How do we deal with ‘policy-orphans” who don’t fit into a particular framing? This is an ethical and social justice issue. It may or may not become a business model issue. Many entrepreneurs will look at this and ask about unmet needs and try to respond if the market is big enough. But we’re all familiar with ‘market failures’. Surfacing these issues and then thinking about the next stage of social entrepreneurship, the politics of aid, political economies in which social entrepreneurs work will be vitally important. This is a very different task than writing another celebratory piece on the amazing work of social entrepreneurs. It is time to mature and ask the hard questions and understand the limits of an approach–after all, this is another aspect of ethics and social justice as well. To get there we’ll probably have to move beyond the binaries and shibboleths that keep us from asking smart questions.


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