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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Dialogue on Philanthrocapitalism: To Add, But Not To Be

By Moses Lee

This is part 2 of our series reviewing Michael Edwards' Just Another Emperor and the concept of 'philanthrocapitalism'.? Read part 1 here.

team Michael Edwards' recent book on "philanthrocapitalism" reminds me of a recent conversation I had with my sister, a social worker. Over dinner one day, she started going off on business types:

Why is it that business people think they are the answer to all the world's problems? You guys come off so arrogant! Somehow, we, who have been working in the civil sector for centuries, struggling to solve social issues, are completely inept, and you guys, who have all the money, are going to solve all the problems.
I think many people have a similar perspective. And perhaps rightly so.Maybe we business folks didn't enter into the public/non-profit sector scene in the smoothest way. We in the BoP world know that when entering into a developing country, we can't just tell locals what to do and what they need. But perhaps we didn't follow our own advice when we entered into the world of foundations and NGOs. Instead of partnering with and listening to those who have gone before us, we just set up shop and announced to the world, "times are changing -- a new and better way has arrived!" Therefore, I can understand the push back and why Edwards wrote his book, Just Another Emperor?

I think it is important that we from the business field enter into conversation with the public/non-profit sector with absolute humility, because, as we all know, market-based solutions are not the "silver bullet" to all social ills. (There is no doubt that a world that is entirely driven by markets/business principles would not be a world we would want to live in. For such a world would be devoid of love, passion, and inspiration - all elements that are crucial to our human existence.)

But to reject what business people have to offer is an embrace of the very thing we are accused of: arrogance.

Perhaps for the first time ever, we are seeing a movement of business professionals willingly chose lower paying jobs to get involved in solving social issues with their business acumen or making corporate decisions that are socially bent. (And please take note: these decisions are not "market-based." If they were, all fresh MBAs would be working on Wall Street and corporate dollars would all be invested in projects generating a ROI of at least 20 percent.)

It's clear that many business folks "have a heart" and want to make a difference. We want to roll up our sleeves just like those in the Peace Corps. And we reject the idea of living the American Dream of a nice, stable career and a pampered retirement. Instead, we want to bring our skill sets to the table and add to the conversation of social transformation, rather than be the conversation.

Now I ask you, is this a picture of passive consumption instead of active participation? Is this a dilution of "other-directed" behavior? Is this a damaging of civil society, which is the crucible of democratic politics and social transformation?
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