In a sign that social enterprise is continuing its drift toward the mainstream, US social entrepreneurs recently found themselves skewered on the end of the pen of New York Times opinion columnist, David Brooks. You may remember that Brooks provoked a flurry of interest in the UK’s quality-press last year with his book, The Social Animal – which was at one point alleged to be sitting on or close to the coffee tables of both Prime Minister, David Cameron and opposition leader, Ed Miliband.
Brooks limbers up for his attack with a (reasonably) gentle caricature of the social entrepreneur as youthful hipster: “If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you’ve probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good. Typically, they’ve spent a year studying abroad. They’ve traveled in the poorer regions of the world. Now they have devoted themselves to a purpose larger than self.”
A ‘but’ is clearly on the way and here it is: “It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics.”
Social entrepreneurs shun the political process in favour of working to deliver change on the ground. For Brooks: “That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.”
Further down the page, any social entrepreneurs tottering to their feet to defend their practical, grassroots idealism are floored with another rhetorical jab: “Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing, honest courts or strict standards of behavior; it’s more uplifting to talk about microloans and sustainable agriculture.”
In emphasising the central importance of professional policing and the rule of law, Brooks is (hopefully) focusing primarily on the limitations of social enterprise projects set-up by Americans in countries where these things don’t currently exist but the underlying questions also apply to socially enterprising activities closer to home in the US and the UK.
One is ‘To what extent can social entrepreneurs evade politics?’ but another is ‘Is trying to ‘evade politics’ really a fair description of what those who chose to focus on helping some people directly rather than wider political transformation are doing?’
In the context that Brooks is discussing, there’s clearly many countries in the world where the overall positive social impact of the effective implementation of the rule of law, and an end to governmental corruption, would be considerably greater than providing some of the population with the opportunity of ‘selling their crafts in boutiques around the world.‘
Unfortunately, as a social entrepreneur, you’re unlikely to be in a position to choose between doing one or the other.
It’s not easy but it clearly is practically possible (if you’re talented, committed and fairly lucky) to set up a business that enables some people to earn a decent living despite living in a country plagued by corruption and institutional dysfunction. It’s more difficult to unilaterally impose a functional legal system on the place where those people live. The US government – which possesses a reserve currency, a massive professional army and a considerable nuclear capability – has a very poor track in its attempts to do so. On that basis, it seems a bit much to ask of some socially entrepreneurial graduates armed only with their i-pads and Benetton t-shirts.
Social entrepreneurs faced with Brooks’ accusation of attempting to evade politics would be well placed to respond that they’re taking the choice to take pursue action that is open to them (working in partnership with the people who they hope will benefit from their social enterprises), rather than wringing their hands and complaining about how much more they could do if the starting point was different. They could equally argue that the stable governing structures and institutions that Brooks champions are more likely to come into being in response to increasing, more widely dispersed, economic and social development than through people campaigning for them in the abstract.
But I think Brooks has hit on important point – whether or not it’s one he’s intending to make. That point is that it’s not possible to seperate your social enterprise (or socially enterprising activity) from the political context you’re operating in. Many social entrepreneurs in the UK, like the ones Brooks encounters in the US: “have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.”
That’s a perfectly legitimate position to hold but, given that the political process is a vehicle for exercising of power and the distribution of money, it’s not possible to be unaffected by it (even if chosing not to engage provides the benefit of independence at a cost of lack of access to resources).
In the UK, where such a high percentage of socially enterprising activity is either paid-for entirely or supported by government cash, social enterprise is unavoidably intertwined with politics. Whether or not we as social entrepreneurs support a political party, or engage in political campaigns, by taking government money we play a political role.
What that political role is, is another matter. It’s clearly not that same for everyone. It could be to provide cover for particular government policies. It could to be change the relationships between citizens and the state. It could even be to provide examples of the virtue of pursuing pragmatic actions to make people’s lives better rather than largescale political transformation.