Social entrepreneurs can’t evade politics

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.




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7 responses to “Social entrepreneurs can’t evade politics

  1. David, I suppose it’s a consequence of there being so many attempts to define what social enterprise is, that leads to conclusions about what it isn’t.
    Our founder in his last year made the point that typically “social enterprise” tends to be risk averse, avoiding the major issues of government corruption and organised crime.

    Our beginnings had been highly political in our founder’s activism over US servicemen missing in Laos, leading him to an opportunity to serve Clinton as a volunteer. This opened a political channel which gave opportunity to recommend an experimental development initiative in Russia.

    Our founder, along with the like of venture capitalist Bill Browder earned the distinction of being identified as a threat to national security, for refusing bribery demands from minor FSB officials.

    It was standing his ground in Crimea over an attempted project hijack which led to a deputy finance minister being removed from office:

    With the national scale project for Ukraine our objective was to leverage funding support from US government reasoning the case for diverting funding from the occupation of Iraq to invest in a 5 year microeconomic development and social enterprise initiative.

    We read a response into the formation of a new USAID foundation and finding ourselves stonewalled by them, take our complaint up the political hierarchy to the Senate committee in charge of all international development funding.

    This author may not be aware of politically active social entrepreneurs and that in itself may be a consequence of government supported silo cultivation, but it doesn’t mean none of us are engaging.



  2. rgashton

    You put your finger on what is perhaps the biggest barrier facing today’s stock of social enterprises when you say,. ‘a high percentage of socially enterprising activity is either paid-for entirely or supported by government cash.’

    Vulnerability is therefore inevitable – in just the same way as it would be if you grew leeks for Tesco and sold none elsewhere. One single source of income is no way to maintain control of your enterprise.

    The way to build a robust, credible socially focused economy is to reduce reliance on Goverment cash – however obtained – and conduct real business with real people.


    • Robert in an ongoing Linkedin discussion Rory Ridley-Duff uses the word hegemony in the context of social enterprise and the lack of progress being made.

      To exist outside of the government supported part of the sector is also to be invisible. The same might be said of the situation in the US with a greater emphasis on foundation funding.

      Most of these seem to be in denial of anything that operates outside their brand. Skoll for example, provides a world map of social enterprise based entirely on their award winners. Nether Acumen nor Ashoka will publish comments on their blogs, in my experience.

      By and large, social enterprise isn’t particularly social and being government funded, neither can it be considered enterprising. .


    • Beanbags admin


      I don’t disagree. I think the reason why that’s a challenge for us to grapple with rather than a clear instruction to follow is that social enterprises often provide goods or services that aren’t viable in real business terms (without some sort of subsidy).

      In fact, many (possibly most) social entrepreneurs would say that their aiming to tackle needs that aren’t served by the market. Are there viable models for social business that don’t involve government putting up some of the cash?


      • Indeed there are such models, David.
        Ours for example which has self-funded for 8 years in the UK. In the US there are now B-Corps, L3Cs and Flexible Purpose Corporations to choose from.
        Surplus revenue from our services has been invested in initiatives with social objectives.

        These initiatives in themselves are designed to be ‘nil overall cost’ requiring an initial repayable investment like any business – seed capital.

        In Tomsk, for example, the micro finance bank became self sustaining in the 2nd year and led to the creation of 10,000 enterprises from an initiail investment of $6 million.

        The aim of our UK business plan was to create seed capital for other social enterprises and develop the social economy before the predicted failure of capitalism.


  3. It’s a bit of a wide brush to say that the majority of Social Enterprises try to duck out of the way of politics and the like. Personally, I think it’s more a case of these types of businesses trying to give themselves enough breathing space to operate. Then, there are others who are more than happy to square up to the government and tell them in no uncertain terms that they’re here to stay.

    I can only really speak for the SE that I’m involved with (Inspired Quill), but we have no feelings either way (yet) toward the Government. We’re not at the stage where we HAVE to be. Maybe in the future if we want to tackle a broader topic of literacy education or whatever, we’ll have to put on our big-girl shoes and stand up.

    There is definitely an element of Starfish-Throwing in the SE ‘sector’, I make no claim otherwise. But a great many articles which try to portray the Social Entrepreneur as an ‘iPhone using, Instagram taking modern-hippie’ (I use a blackberry, thankyouverymuch), is just counter-productive.

    People need to stop whining about SEs and actually say something constructive or thought-provoking, or just keep their typing-digits to themselves.

    Having said that, I love this blog and will continue to read it, since you’re certainly /not/ in that category (insofar as I’ve seen, in any case). Hell, I’m engaging by posting here, right?

    Thanks for another great lunchtime read.
    Warm regards;


    • Beanbags admin

      Hi Sara,

      Thanks for the comment. I think you’re right about social entrepreneurs giving themselves breathing space to operate – it’s a good way of describing what many of us try to do.

      David Brooks isn’t saying so much saying that SEs need to take on governments. He’s offering a variation on Amartya Sen’s argument (I’m sure other people have made it as well) that there’s never been a famine in a functioning democracy.

      Brooks is saying that SEs attempts to solve specific local problems are either doomed to failure, or tinkering round the edges of the problems, in situations where governing institutions don’t work.

      I agree, though, that he’s not really making any constructive suggestions about what SEs should do.


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