Oscar Abello

NexThought Monday: Complexity is the New Black

Doing good used to be a simple affair. Just buy local, or buy fair trade; get inspi(RED); buy one, give one; don’t just give, invest.

Lately, bloggers, tweeters, tumblr-ers, DIY journalists and aid workers are bringing more and more of the world’s true complexity into the limelight, putting the achievements of today’s cause marketers and social enterprises into new perspective.

So is simplicity going out of fashion?

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently penned an op-ed on the need for social enterprise types to take a dose of realism and remember that if in the end there is still no rule of law and a predatory ruling class still controls a country, all their work adds up to very little.

Brooks’ colleague at the Times, Nicholas Kristof, is the most famous of the many who might respond by saying: When a social enterprise throws just one stranded starfish on a beach covered in starfish back into the ocean, it makes a world of difference – to that one starfish.

The optimism and enthusiasm of the starfish throwers are admirable, Brooks says, but what about weeding out the root causes of why the starfish left the ocean in the first place? Social enterprise coach Rich Tafel said it well recently in a blog post for the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

“Starfish throwing, like charity, isn’t a bad thing, but it is not a solution. When we confuse charity and justice, we perpetuate injustice. True world change requires more of its leaders. We must have the courage to work within our complex systems to change the rules.”

Throwing starfish isn’t necessarily easy, but it is definitively simple: see a need, fill the need. Changing the rules is definitively complex: A community defines a need, identifies why it isn’t filled, decides who it thinks should fill it, and changes the rules to create incentives to fill it for the people or organizations they think should fill it.

Complexity is the new black.

If you were following the #Kony2012 story in mainstream media, you may have witnessed a turning point in how mainstream narratives and perceptions of the poor are changing, from stories of victims for the “White Savior Industrial Complex” to save, to stories of human beings with dignity and the agency to organize against wrongdoing and to lay the groundwork for stronger institutions.

On Al Jazeera’s The Stream, commentators in studio and online participated in a wide-ranging discussion on good aid versus bad aid, sparked by the realization that cause marketing from groups like TOMS Shoes and Invisible Children does more harm than good by ignoring the complex power structures and existing webs of organizations on the ground in the communities they intend to help.

Development economist Chris Blattman had his faith in humanity restored thanks to the sudden media interest in nuance around #Kony2012.

So when it comes to the connection between development and enterprise, where do all these BOP-focused product- and enterprise- development initiatives lie? You might say see a need/fill the need is the very definition of entrepreneurialism. Since so much of the BOP’s consumption comes from the private sector anyway – particularly from the informal sector –why not just try and improve the quality and accessibility of products and services for the BOP?

It’s time for social enterprises to step beyond this narrow view of who they are and what they do. For example, impact investors have typically stuck to their guns when it comes to staying out of the regional/national politics in the places in which they invest. Their reasons are plenty, and understandable: they’ve got enough on their plate as it is, with the need to define and measure impact and to identify worthy investees; they don’t want to risk their freedom to do business in a country; they’re investors, not public policy wonks; it’s not the place of an outsider to interfere with the politics of another country, lest they be accused of colonialism.

But as history has shown, social progress depends on the economic empowerment of ordinary people. If impact investing, and more broadly social enterprise, are meant in part to contribute to the economic empowerment of ordinary people through job- and wealth- creation, then successful social enterprises are by definition interfering with the politics of the status quo.

It’s time to accept full responsibility for changing politics as part of social impact. If in attempting to improve some economic or social aspect of people’s lives we aren’t also improving their political standing and the rule of law, any economic or social impact remains entirely subject to the political whims of a predatory ruling class. That does not sound very sustainable to me.

Every life a social enterprise touches is more than a starfish. It’s a human being that dreams of a cleaner ocean, and we have no right to ignore that dream in how we measure our success.

Education, Social Enterprise
impact investing, social enterprise