Social Entrepreneurship Beyond the Caricature

David Brooks had an interesting piece the other day on young people and social entrepreneurship. Perhaps not shockingly, he portrays those of us who believe in a role for a reformed and impact-oriented private sector as idealistic, possessed of a worldview that’s as myopic as it is international.

But his caricature of young believers hanging out in coffee shops wearing United Colors of Beneton misses the point of why young people like me want a new way. Here’s his claim:

Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing, honest courts or strict standards of behavior; it’s more uplifting to talk about microloans and sustainable agriculture.

In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on.

Here’s mine:

  • We’re not trying to evade politics—but we can’t reform someone else’s institutions. If you’re not from, say, Nigeria, there’s not much you can do to help establish a transparent and fair government there that adheres to strict principles of rule of law.  What Brooks seems to call neglect I call respect.
  • Along those lines, to the extent someone can do something “from the outside” about democracy and rule of law challenges, there’s already a large swath of organizations doing something performing that role, including Transparency International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations (and as Echoing Green so nicely points out, there are lots of people fighting those issues through entrepreneurship as well).  But there aren’t—or weren’t until social entrepreneurship took off—organizations devoted to making innovative products for farmers, or helping the poor get access to capital easily.
  • Finally, he misses the point of what we’re working for: social entrepreneurship doesn’t address the failure of the government.  It addresses the failure of a system that pits government and private sector against one another.  We want to reframe the mission of the private sector (lower returns for higher impact) and come to terms with the limitations of the public/multilateral sector whose donor-supplicant relationship to the poor has so often proven counterproductive.

This article was submitted by a first-year IPS student.

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Sustainable Energy for All

In a little glass building with a red-brick façade, across from the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, is an intrinsic but relatively unknown component of the United Nations system –  the United Nations Foundation. Set up as a public charity in 1998 through a generous $1billion gift from billionaire Ted Turner, the Foundation describes its work as that of connecting “people, ideas and resources to help the United Nations solve global problems.” A dynamic, fast-moving organization, the UN Foundation supports the UN through advocacy, fundraising and developing public-private partnership networks, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and the Practitioner Network on Energy Access, without most of the trappings of bureaucratic elephants.

You might think, how much can an organization that is not officially part of the UN contribute to UN efforts? Continue reading

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“Presumed Guilty”

Earlier this month the Stanford community had the opportunity to meet Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, the two directors of Presumed Guilty. The documentary, which deals with the Mexican criminal justice system, has been highly praised by international film critics, and the event here was a chance to listen to the directors’ experiences and engage in a critical discussion.

To get a better sense of the movie, imagine you are walking down the street after a long day of work. You are tired and all you intend to do is get home to your family.

Out of nowhere, a police car slams on the brakes right next to you. An agitated police officer jumps out and roughly pushes you in.

A couple of hours later, after enduring punches in the chest and other abusive police behavior, all you can process is the screaming voice of an officer telling you that “you did it and that’s it.” They simply claim it was you.

Wait, hold on. What was you? What are we talking about and what in the world is going on? Continue reading

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Elsewhere on the web: Article from Richard Muller, professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of “Physics for Future Presidents” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008) on the findings of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project. The project looked at “more than 1.6 billion measurements from more than 39,000 temperature stations around the world” to take account of some of the issues that climate change skeptics have raised about previous climate change assessments. The article doesn’t comment on whether humans are causing climate change, but does conclude that groups such as the IPCC and others “managed to avoid bias in their data selection, homogenization and other corrections.

Are there any global warming skeptics left? (Never mind the skeptics about the impact of humans on the climate, which as comments on my previous article on climate change skepticism show, do exist).

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Elsewhere on the web: The Economist has a short article on a study by Jonathan Koomey of Stanford University showing that the electrical efficiency of computers has doubled every 1.6 years since the mid-1940s. Good news from the climate change viewpoint and for users who need lower battery capacity! Hopefully we’ll do even better in the coming years.

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Innovating for Poverty Action

Stanford has started another academic year, and all of us here at IPSofacto have recently returned from summers spent making international policy, or at least sitting at desks trying to look like we were making international policy. To start off the year, we are going to run a few posts from talking about our experiences at different organizations in different countries. This is basically the grad school equivalent of the back-to-school how I spent my summer essay, except instead of going to camp some of us went to Kabul. And generally we’re not writing them in crayon.

I spent my summer at Innovations for Poverty Action, a non-profit that conducts evaluations and research on international development projects to determine what works and what does not for reducing poverty and improving welfare (primarily in the developing world but in the U.S. as well). Founded by a development economist at Yale named Dean Karlan, IPA is at the forefront of a movement in development circles to promote the use of rigorous research tools to help figure out if the development assistance is doing what it’s supposed to do. In practice, this usually means using randomized controlled trials to evaluate the effectiveness of specific interventions, for example the use of deworming treatments in schools to improve student attendance and performance (verdict: they work pretty well).

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IPSo Pashto and Dari

Mujib (left) and Bashir (right). Mujib won.

A fun and often unintentional way to pass the time with non-native English speakers is to confuse them with wacky idioms. When you really pay attention, it’s alarming how many things we say that, “at face value”, bear no relationship to what we’re trying to describe. English First Language (EFL) speakers like me know to take these kinds of phrases “with a grain of salt”.

But the “tables are turned” when you travel. I’m spending the summer in Afghanistan, whose constitution designates Dari and Pashto as the two official languages. I speak neither. Extreme confusion and disorientation are thus “par for the course”, and often my befuddlement survives translation. Taking pity on me, my coworkers — each of whom speak Dari, Pashto, and English fluently — took me on a brief tour of common idioms in both of Afghanistan’s national languages.

Here’s a collection, with recordings for practice, that would help you get through an alcohol-free cocktail party in Kabul. Just listen, repeat, and “Bob’s your uncle”.

“I am not open and close of my chair.”
DariMan bandeh wohz-i-chowkey khud naystum.
Roughly: “I don’t care about my title/position.”

“I am not in your story.”
Pashto: Zah sta pah k’sah kay nayem.
Dari: Manda k’sait naystum.
Roughly: “I don’t care what you do.”

“Your hand is free up to London.”
PashtoLas de tar London poory khlass.
An angrier version of “Seriously, I don’t care what you do.”

“Tell your father to eat your sorrow.”
DariPadar ta ba goo key ghamatabukhora.
To tell someone to eat your sorrow means to have him solve a problem for you. Your father might eat your sorrow by finding you a spouse.

“Here is the ground, here is the meter.”
Pashto: Dah gahz dah maydahn.
Roughly: “Do whatever it is you’re bragging about now. I’ll believe it when I see it.” Alternatively: “Bring it on.”

“Don’t die before the gun is fired.”
PashtoDa daz na makhki ma mra.
The English equivalent is “Don’t jump the gun.” I learned this one a when a friendly colleague told me “Hey” and I said “I can’t edit anything for you right now.”

“Don’t take off your shoes before you see the water.”
DariAab ra naw deedah moozah ra as pai nahkash.
If you’re walking in the desert and you think you see water, you might be wrong, so don’t get too excited. In English we have: “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

“A fresh leaf is a gift from a poor person.”
DariBarge sabz tohfe darwaysh.
Even the tiniest gift from someone who can’t afford to give you much is more valuable than priceless. This is why mothers love homemade cards on Mothers’ Day until you’re 18 and you can’t get away with that anymore.

Kathy Gilsinan is a second-year IPS student concentrating in International Security and Cooperation.

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“Proposition H8” – Or the Politics of Disgust

Anybody who has ever experienced the feeling of being in love knows that there is no changing your mind about whom you love even if circumstances are not exactly opportune or the other person does not feel the same way. When two people meet and actually do feel the same way about each other it all the more feels like a miracle. I recently attended a Jewish wedding ceremony in Boston, MA and witnessed not only a beautiful ceremony full of old and new traditions, but also an explicit mention of the Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Transsexual community. There was a boy and a girl getting married, expressing concerns for a community they don’t visibly have close ties to. As part of their own ceremony, they wished that the right to marry should be extended to all people regardless of their orientation – and the audience, including an 80-year old man sitting in front of me, applauded and nodded in approval.

Why then did an electoral ballot, Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage in California – arguably the United States’ most liberal state – get passed in the 2008 elections? Why is the State of New York only the 6th state legalizing same-sex marriage, while 12 states prohibit it by statute and 29 do so via the states’ constitution? What forces are at work causing so much anxiety, suspicion and hatred for the LGBT community in some people?  Is there any scientific evidence in favor of such discrimination?

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Transition to What?

Afghanistan, you may have read, is transitioning. This month it swapped the old US Ambassador and the commander of US and NATO forces for new ones. At the same time, the first phase of the “security transition” from international to Afghan forces was marked by handover ceremonies in seven areas.

Babur Gardens, Kabul

For the member countries of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it’s pretty clear what Afghanistan is transitioning from —  a political liability, a sinkhole for tax dollars and soldiers. For those, especially the Afghans themselves, to whom what happens in Afghanistan will continue to matter after 2014 when most international troops are expected to depart, it is less clear what the country is transitioning to.

The handover ceremonies of the past few weeks have featured provincial leaders and security officials confidently insisting on Afghan forces’ ability to maintain security in their areas. Meanwhile, at the Afghan news organization where I’m spending the summer, the daily drip of casualty reports never slows. Nine insurgents and two Afghan National Army soldiers killed in Ghazni province. Three children killed, five others injured in Kunduz province. The developing story as I’m writing this is a suicide attack on police headquarters in Lashkargah, the capital of the southern province of Helmand, which was officially “transitioned” less than two weeks ago. The grim tedium of war copy-editing is sometimes broken by reports from Washington or from military press conferences: “The tide of war is receding” (Obama), Afghan and international forces have “wrested the momentum from the enemies of the new Afghanistan” (Petraeus).

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Celebrating death? – Clashes in Western Values?

Two weeks ago, Osama Bin-Laden, America’s most wanted and undoubtedly most hated criminal was killed in his hiding place in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Scenes of joy, euphoria and celebration all over the United States were broadcast shortly after the official announcement that a covert US operation had – following a decade long hunt – finally succeeded. People celebrated with pride and joy chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” in front of the White House and waving the American flag in all parts of the country. However, looking at these scenes of uninhibited euphoria at the death of a human being invokes resemblance to the scenes in many Islamic countries following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The West celebrates death in a strikingly similar way.

I was sitting in a class the Monday morning after and even though the news was on everyone’s mind, reactions were mixed. Particularly, a class member from Pakistan dared to inject in the discussion that it was not only US citizens that suffered under the threat of Al-Quaeda actions, but that also innocent bystanders all over the world, particularly in Pakistan, had fallen victim of Al-Quaeda as well as Western-led actions against it. The US raid team had also killed two civilians on Sunday night. Even if one wanted to go as far to acknowledge that the mastermind of 9/11 had ‘finally been brought to justice’, a reaction of euphoria and delirious celebration was surely misplaced.

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