Last week at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship I attended a panel entitled ‘Reengineering Aid: What is wrong with the aid industry and how can it be fixed in the 21st century?’ The lineup of speakers was impressive – Ghanaian-born Baron Paul Boateng, aid critic and Dead Aid author Dambisa Moyo, journalist Andrew Mwenda, USAID’s Chief Innovation Officer Maura O’Neill, and Barefoot College founder Bunker Roy. I expected fireworks, and was not disappointed on that score. The speakers were entertaining, impassioned and critical. And yet, I came away from the session unsatisfied, with a sense of a missed opportunity.
Boateng, Moyo and Mwenda were strongly critical of aid the way that it has been practised over the last 50 years. All agreed that there is fairly little to show for five decades of effort, and that aid has been approached in an arrogant, top-down manner. They further argued that aid lowers the accountability of governments to their own people, and promotes unhealthy levels of dependency. Bunker Roy argued strongly that sustainable development comes from the bottom up.
O’Neill was both the only career entrepreneur in the group and the only currently serving official in an aid agency. She made clear points about the relationship between aid and enterprise: start with an exit strategy; good ideas can come from many places; realize that entrepreneurs need the infrastructure that only government (often supported by aid) can provide.
While the exchanges were lively, I found myself thinking during the debates that the question is really not about reengineering aid. International aid’s stake in financing development is almost always smaller than states’ stake, and is often smaller than the aggregate investment of poor households.
The question, I think, that the Skoll panel should have been debating is the role of entrepreneurship in helping states deliver global public goods.
Take the example of education in Africa. African states made a noble promise that they would seek to provide education to all of their children. This promise is a work in progress, but progress has certainly been made. The continent has gone from 7% gross enrolment in primary school in 1960 to 100% in the latest UN reports. It took the industrialized countries of the global North quite a bit longer to achieve this result.
But quality secondary education, linked to livelihoods, is only a vague aspiration for both national systems and for the global community. Worse, it is basically mathematically impossible given current unit costs and the resources available, including all imaginable development assistance.
What is needed is not incremental funding through aid but a reworked model of the financing and delivery of schooling. We have seen examples elsewhere. African countries have leapfrogged unaffordable fixed telephone infrastructure through the rapid adoption of mobile technology. Africa and the West have worked together to lower the price of anti-retroviral drugs to the point where HIV treatment is a reality for Africans rather than a dream.
Rather than railing at the ‘aid industry’ over progress to date, the philanthropic and social enterprise communities should be focusing on how to help African states arrive at a formula to deliver quality secondary education linked to livelihoods. How can governments extend efforts, raise quality and lower costs all at once? These are the sorts of topics that a gathering like Skoll should be focusing its attention on.
Outside the reengineering aid panel, there was a lot of grounded discussion of innovation and opportunity at Skoll. Again in the education area, Salman Khan of the Khan Academy continued to develop his persuasive narrative that we are living in a time of momentous redesign of education, based on new technological possibilities. Sandy Speicher of the design firm IDEO offered many useful ideas on how education spaces and practices can be redesigned to enhance learning. Many other conference participants had relevant experiences to offer. Skoll should, though, concentrate on filling an important gap: they should identify and involve creative and engaged individuals from ministries of education to bridge the gap and mutual wariness that is still evident between social entrepreneurs and education officials.
Social enterprise and philanthropy are fundamentally can-do undertakings. They work best when they avoid resentment and repetitive criticisms, and instead focus on accomplishment. The effort to get to quality secondary education linked to livelihoods is probably a century-long effort, and we’re now at midpoint. Let’s lean forward into what we can do together to deliver on a promise made by our grandparents to our grandchildren.
Peter Laugharn is the executive director of the Firelight Foundation