‘Happy tenth birthday Skoll World Forum,’ said Pamela Hartigan, director of Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, opening the morning plenary on 11 April. In the ten years since the first Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship, the idea of social entrepreneurship has really taken off. The forum has become the premier event for the field, and it seems like everyone the world over is claiming to be a social entrepreneur.
But the Skoll Foundation doesn’t subscribe to the ‘everyone a social entrepreneur’ view of the world. For them the true social entrepreneurs are ‘heroes’, to be celebrated at the sector Oscars, the annual Skoll Awards ceremony. ‘Not everyone is a social entrepreneur,’ said Hartigan, ‘but we can all be entrepreneurial disrupters.’
The plenary was a parade of disrupters. First was Prince Charles on video. Achieving business success by meeting social needs has now been proved possible, he said. Scale up is now needed to meet the huge issues the world faces. The next two disrupters were Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen Fund, who ‘cracked the code on how to change the behaviour of philanthropists’, said Hartigan; and Molly Melching of Tostan, who ‘cracked the code on how to change deeply entrenched social practices’.
Acumen started 12 years ago with the idea of seeing if patient capital would work. There was no roadmap, said Novogratz, but there was a compass: to address poverty. The unknown for Acumen was whether the companies they supported could ever become sustainable – or even disrupt. Now the 1298 ambulance service they supported in Mumbai is a global model. D-Light, in which Acumen invested $2 million, now sells 200,000 lights a month, serving 20 million people in all. The first chapter was about experimentation; the next chapter must be about leadership, said Novogratz.
Molly Melching talked about Tostan’s work to end female genial cutting in Senegal. In 1997 35 women announced their intention to put an end to the practice – to be met by great hostility. It took an elderly religious leader to realize that disruption of the practice could happen without disruption of the community if the key social network was involved. Walking from village to village, he brought in the most conservative religious leaders and made them into leaders of a new movement. Female genital cutting has almost disappeared in Senegal as a result. More impressively still, it seems that this strategy for replacing deeply entrenched social norms can be used in other fields, for example education, where Tostan is now working to change traditional attitudes underlying the country’s dismal educational achievements.
Launch of the Social Progress Index
A well-attended breakout session entitled ‘Per Capita to Pro Capita’ saw the launch of the Social Progress Index, which certainly has potential to be disruptive: it is challenging the pride of place currently occupied by GDP in measuring the wealth of nations. Apparently Simon Kuznets, the man who came up with the idea of GDP in the 1930s, never saw it playing this role. ‘The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income,’ he said.
The Social Progress Index measures the extent to which countries provide for the social and environmental needs of their citizens, using 52 indicators in the areas of basic human needs, foundations of wellbeing, and opportunity. It is the first product of the Social Progress Imperative, whose advisers and board of directors include luminaries such as Michael Porter, Matthew Bishop, Hernando de Soto, Judith Rodin, Brizio Biondi-Morra and Sally Osberg, with Michael Green as executive director.
The Index focuses on measuring outcomes rather than inputs (the money spent in each area). Outcomes can be compared with money spent to measure efficiency. Target audiences include policymakers, aid agencies, business leaders, civil society, philanthropists, impact investors. The Index enables countries to see where they are falling short even if their overall score is high; it gives a menu of societal problems to be dealt with, and provides something to hold governments to account against. Comparing countries’ rankings with GDP can be illuminating. South Africa and Costa Rica have similar GDP but Costa Rica has a much higher level of social progress.
A central aim of the project is to build a social network in each country committed to certain outcomes. Paraguay has adopted the Social Progress Index as the official measure of national performance, forming the Paraguay Social Progress Network.
But why did the UK do so well?
No one could quarrel with the aims of the Index or the focus on measures beyond GDP, but what puzzled me were the rankings. Sweden came first, with the UK in second place, followed by Switzerland, Canada, Germany and the US. How did the UK come out so well? It’s not that I don’t want my own country to have good life expectancy and education and the rest; it’s just that on other social indicators, such as those highlighted in The Spirit Level (subtitled ‘Why more equal societies almost always do better’), the UK, a very unequal society, does so much less well.
Some light is thrown on this by Ben Baumberg, a lecturer in sociology and social policy at the University of Kent, in an excellent post on the Inequalities blog, where he raises questions about the indicators chosen, especially the omission of any reference to economic inequality – while acknowledging the value of ‘introducing measures beyond GDP into the discussion’.
Caroline Hartnell is editor of Alliance magazine