Thoughts from around the globe on social action, ego and bullshit

Liam Black reflects on the heartfelt reactions to his most recent Letter to a Young Social Entrepreneur which has prompted reactions from around the global social innovation community 

My recent Dear Jude letter, The poor are not the raw material for your salvation, really struck a chord. More than 9,000 people have read the piece and the average time spent on it is 22 minutes. People have really being paying attention. I have had loads of feedback via, text, Twitter, Facebook and email.

This is a representative sample of reactions:

Delhi: “Couldn’t agree more ­– too often people's mission (is) themselves not the cause.”

London: “Being fairly fresh out of university (graduated 2011), I was especially susceptible to the ego massage that social entrepreneurship often provides (especially when your work gets you invited over to another country, which can really make you think you're the sh*t). However, I grew very disillusioned ….I found the motives behind people's actions often dubious, and came to see that in itself it is a very limited toolkit for tackling social or environmental issues. It is unethical to always presume that launching a new institution is the best way to tackle an issue.”

LA: “I find this all too often in the social entrepreneur space: misalignment between personal lifestyle and public stance about the poor.”

Melbourne: “Sobering but very necessary piece on the celebrification of social entrepreneurship.”

Cape Town (and one of my favourites): “You are right to be suspicious of ‘faith based’ social ventures. Jesus didn’t die and rise again so that people can wrap themselves in the banner of social entrepreneurship and shout ‘look at me, look at me!'.”

There were hundreds more in this vein and quite a few from people inside the PR bubble who thanked me for the piece but asked to remain anonymous for fear of censure. The silence from Skoll, Schwab et al is to be expected. I want to reiterate that I think that such foundations and other intermediaries have an important role to play and have added significantly to the work of innovators across the globe. My main point is that the focus on creating a cadre of heroic, almost superhuman individuals has unintended consequences and inevitably leads to questionable decisions about awardees.

There is a self-satisfied smugness that is increasingly sticking in people's throats. According to Ashoka it is “co-creating our future, one big idea at a time”. With the greatest respect Ashoka, can we please have an end to this twaddle – not least because you are polluting my brain, one cliché at a time.

I have been asked to name some of the “bullshitters and narcissists” in the premier league whose organisations come nowhere near living up to the hype surrounding them. I won't do that but if the movement continues to grow it is a only matter of time until investigative journalists go beyond the hagiographies to try to see what is behind the Wizard of Oz curtain. They would do well to start in rural India.

One point I urged on Jude was to be sceptical of Yanks and Brits who believe it is their mission to save Africa. One anonymous, high quality text asked: “Is London swarming with black Africans solving your recession and youth riots? Didn’t think so.”

An email from a young aspiring social entrepreneur in Kenya is worth quoting at length:

Social entrepreneurship has become a game of egos and an endless chase of awards and recognition. In a casual meeting of social entrepreneurs in Nairobi, I was surprised when conversations turned to who had won what prize and what other prizes are coming up so that people can get prepared. It got me thinking as to why exactly they were in the industry and I highly doubt that it was for noble reasons of social change.

Out of the 100 or so people attending the event, less than one per cent were Kenyans. The large majority were young Americans and Europeans. It struck me odd that for a space concerned about solving Kenyan problems, very few of the people involved were Kenyan. So, is the problem with Kenyans? … The difference between them and the growing crop of American and European social entrepreneurs is lack of information and capital. Raising funds in an emerging economy, especially when you do not have the education or connections to back you up, is almost impossible. I am not saying that it is bad to take an existing opportunity and that these social entrepreneurs are horrible people – no. There seems to be an information gap that needs to be fixed but at the same time social entrepreneurs need to stop acting like an elite club who share information about existing opportunities only amongst themselves.

Finally, I am also concerned with how non-local social entrepreneurs in Nairobi live the African dream at the expense of their staff. The difference in pay between ‘founders’ and ‘management’ in comparison to other employees is steep. There seems to be an unwritten law that proclaims founders as ‘expatriates’ and therefore justifies a huge pay check which is sufficient to deal with the ‘hardships’ of a developing country. That explains why most can afford to live in leafy suburbs while their employees struggle with daily expenses down town. In essence, they are facilitating poverty, not alleviating it. This is what makes me doubt the very intention as to why social entrepreneurs are setting up shop here.