The rarified air and the elites who occupy it during the World Economic Forum in snowy Davos, Switzerland always receive their fair share of criticism.
This week guest writer Yotam Ariel took a shot or two at the big international conference and what he saw as the mere pretense of impact around solar energy. A few hours after Ariel’s post was published, I noticed this piece by Erica Dhawan, a consultant and keynote speaker whose role is defined as a “global shaper” at the WEF. Based on her experience with an educational social enterprise selling e-learning tools in India, Dhawan warns against over-romanticising the social entrepreneur. “The concept of social enterprise, so attractive in sites like Davos, tends to fall apart when we actually step outside the Western world.”
She makes a clear-eyed request to Davos’ leaders: “Let’s remove the bubbly champagne and shrimp cocktail, turn the social enterprise mafia into an assessment team in India, and examine social enterprises for both their strengths and limitations–that is resilient dynamism.”
“Resilient dynamism” was the theme of this year’s WEF, incidentally. And as Reuters columnist John C Abell pointed out, dynamism means much more than than a seductive product. He makes this point through the case of One Laptop Per Child, the nonprofit supplying low-income children with rugged, energy efficient laptops. Yes, I know. OLPC is whipping boy of sorts, but it was the darling of Davos in 2006. (For additional information on OLPC’s future, check out Sadna Samaranayake’s excellent post from 2011).
Abell reports that OLPC had given away 2.4 million of its XO laptops by the end of 2011. But the real game-changing mobile technology - smartphones - has nearly rendered the XO laptop a relic. Instead of another base of the pyramid gadget, Abell makes the well-reasoned case for an Internet access “moonshot.”
“The way to spread the wealth isn’t by putting a computer in every child’s lap; it’s by putting the Internet everywhere—even in places where there is no potable water. Villages, neighborhoods, fruit stands—even people—can become hotspots, sharing the wealth that computers promise.
Ariel, Dhawan and Abell all make excellent points, and I don’t think they’re making them in vain. Anecdotally, there seems to be a noticeable shift in how social entrepreneurs are approaching lasting and sustainable impact, and the mechanism is infrastructure. As one indicator, take a look at the social entrepreneurs attending Davos this year with the Schwab Foundation for its annual meeting. The vast majority of these 29 leaders have focused on leveraging infrastructure for social good, be it in finance, energy, agriculture, education, health, youth employment or financial inclusion, to name a few. (Some of their stories are shared in the video below).
Many of these enterprises are serving multiple stakeholders, and positioning themselves as a linchpin between consumers and larger companies, or government services for that matter. That’s a very valuable place to operate.
So, I would second Abell on his assessment that when it comes to spreading wealth, “the gateway drug will be the gateway itself.”
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