You are here

The neoliberal suicide of social entrepreneurship

Social Entrepreneurship seems a clumsy word, doesn't it.  Deriving from the French word meaning to undertake, it may have become it's own undertaker.

The original concept is attributable to Bill Drayton whose Ashoka foundation had driven many of the early efforts to apply business methods to address social problems.

Others like Skoll have followed. In all cases, supported by a nonprofit foundation which may provide start up funding, or a stipend to ensure that the entrepreneurs themselves are at least sustainable.

These foundations are part of what Ruthie Gilmore of the black women's group Incite! describes as the nonprofit industrial complex, the transferrance of wealth from profit maximising corporations back to their own interests via a nonprofit foundation. "Neoliberalism", she says, "does not mean new nice guys, it means new mean guys". The Revolution will not be funded turned out to be prophetic.      

Writing in SSIR of 'The neoliberal takeover of social enterpreneurship' Jyoti Sharma draws our attention to the increasing focus on profitable outcomes, to the detriment of the grass roots where it has often been necessary to subsidise the efforts of the poorest with charitable donations.   

"Social Entrepreneurship is a distraction, it's mainstream capitalism that needs to change" said Pamela Hartigan of the Skoll Centre on Social Entrepreneurship shortly before her death this year. Pamela noted the growing emphasis on corporate profit maximisation and its negative externalities which leaves us to deal with the fallout. She pointed to a new notion of "entrepreneurship for society".

One of these who would describe his approach as "profit for purpose" made much the same points when he addressed an international conference on ecological economics in 2009, saying:   

"Possibly this has escaped immediate attention in Ukraine, but, economists in the US as of the end of 2008 openly confessed that they do not know what to do.  So, we invented three trillion dollars, lent it to ourselves, and are trying to salvage a broken system so far by reestablishing the broken system with imaginary money.

Now there are, honestly, no answers.  It is all just guesswork, and not more than that.  What is not guesswork is that the broken – again – capitalist system, be it traditional economics theories in the West or hybrid communism/capitalism in China, is sitting in a world where the existence of human beings is at grave risk, and it's no longer alarmist to say so.

The question at hand is what to do next, and how to do it.  We all get to invent whatever new economics system that comes next, because we must."

He returned the following year to deliver the core argument from his 1996 paper as a member of Bill Clinton's re-election committee,  with this key point: 

"Modifying the output of capitalism is the only method available to resolving the problem of capitalism where numbers trumped people – at the hands of people trained toward profit represented only by numbers and currencies rather than human beings.  Profit rules, people are expendable commodities represented by numbers.  The solution, and only solution, is to modify that output, measuring profit in terms of real human beings instead of numbers."

Now you may wonder as I have long wondered, why it's taken so long for this kind of thinking to gain traction. The answer, I believe comes back to neoliberalism.  

It was Tony Blair, an unrepentant neoliberal who made social entrepreneurship government policy in the UK under a New Labour government in which Lord Mandelson had a significant role.  It's no wonder the Left have long been suspicious of social entrepreneuship, which has gone hand in hand with privatisation of public services, our NHS in particular.

In more recent times, it's no suprise to find both Blair and Mandelson showing up in Ukraine along with Sir Richard Branson, one of those who's benefitted most from the asset stripping of public services.  They are there to serve the kind of people for whom social benefit is not a consideration. The people identified by the man who pitched to the Sumy conference. In his revelations of condition in state childcare he wrote in 2006 of 'Death Camps, For Children':  

"Excuses won’t work, particularly in light of a handful of oligarchs in Ukraine having been allowed to loot Ukraine’s economy for tens of billions of dollars. I point specifically to Akhmetov, Pinchuk, Poroshenko, and Kuchma, and this is certainly not an exhaustive list. These people can single-handedly finance 100% of all that will ever be needed to save Ukraine’s orphans. None of them evidently bother to think past their bank accounts, and seem to have at least tacit blessings at this point from the new regime to keep their loot while no one wants to consider Ukraine’s death camps, and the widespread poverty that produced them.."

Going on to deliver a proposal for social enterprise, described as a 'Marshall Plan' for Ukraine, he argued:

'This is a long-term permanently sustainable program, the basis for "people-centered" economic development. Core focus is always on people and their needs, with neediest people having first priority – as contrasted with the eternal chase for financial profit and numbers where people, social benefit, and human well-being are often and routinely overlooked or ignored altogether. This is in keeping with the fundamental objectives of Marshall Plan: policy aimed at hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. This is a bottom-up approach, starting with Ukraine's poorest and most desperate citizens, rather than a "top-down" approach that might not ever benefit them. They cannot wait, particularly children. Impedance by anyone or any group of people constitutes precisely what the original Marshall Plan was dedicated to opposing. Those who suffer most, and those in greatest need, must be helped first -- not secondarily, along the way or by the way. '

It wasn't this kind of social innovation that Ukraine got, but one which found partners in the corporation and foundations of the "insanely greedy oligarchs" described above. The vehicle for this being USAID and The British Council, well known for their soft channel approach to helping our governments trade with despotic regimes. 

We applied to be partner of the British Council, in defence of our IP. According to Martin Davidson their former head "British Council partners were expected to make a financial contribution". That says it all, really.   

Failing to tackle corruption would eventually turn toward violence, as was warned of a decade earlier in 'Really Betraying a Revolution' a revolution which would not be funded, in Ruthie Gilmore's words. 

Davos 2014 bore witness to our neoliberals and one of the "insanely greedy oligarchs" at the same table, asking if capitalism might deliver social as well as financial returns:

Today, even the advocates of social enterpreneurship see the threat to grassroots empowerment. Writing this week for SSIR Andrew Wilson of the School, for Social Entrepreneurs argues that Universities shouldn't teach social entrepreneurship.

Yet in NextBillion we learn that SSE doesn't seerm to have any greater emphasis on supporting the most marginalised with only 8% of students coming from poverty backgrounds. There's little chance of a poor African woman who wants to benefit her local village ever getting to attend such courses. That takes us back to Jyoti Sharma's point about the most marginalised being unserved.      . 

One might imagine that each should be celebrating each other's progress. That's not the way it works in social entepreneurship, where brand seems to matter most.

The man who'd began with a pitch to the US President , lived homelessly for many years and died in poverty, left these thoughts behind 

'The term “social enterprise” in the various but similar forms in which it is being used today — 2008 — refers to enterprises created specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism and for profit enterprise don’t address for the simple reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven’t enough money to be of concern or interest. Put another way, social enterprise aims specifically to help and assist people who fall through the cracks. Allowing that some people do not matter, as things are turning out, allows that other people do not matter and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to rectify that problem, if only because letting it get worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing numbers of people are coming to understand that “them” might equal “me.” Call it compassion, or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned self-interest. Either way, we are all in this together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves what it means to ignore someone to death, or not.'