Rhetoric trumping reality

A piece by Nicholas Kristof in the January 30 New York Times (available by subscription or on-line through your public library site) about the gathering of social entrepreneurs at Davos went rapidly from being inspirational to being infuriating, because of the false assumptions buried in his rhetoric. 

What’s inspirational is the work Kristof describes, a range of small-bore solutions that are having big impact in the developing world.  What’s infuriating is the implication that the people proposing these solutions are somehow a new breed, sprung full-blown from the head of American capitalism and blessedly free of old-fashioned limitations like the need for charitable support or government intervention.

Let’s take a look:

Social entrepreneurs . . . resemble traditional do-gooders in their yearning to make the world a better place, but sound like chief executives when they talk about metrics to assess cost-effectiveness. Many also generate income to finance expansion.

This, of course, is brand-new; because no nonprofit has ever before tried to evaluate effectiveness or sustain itself through business income.  That’s why there’s an entire section of the U.S.tax code devoted to Unrelated Business Income Taxation.

"Politics is failing to solve all the big issues,” said Jim Wallis, who wrote ”God’s Politics” and runs Sojourners, which pushes social justice issues. ”So when that happens, social movements rise up.”

Politics is not failing; politics is not trying, because for nearly thirty years–since the ascent of Ronald Reagan, with his Inaugural-address mantra "Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem"– a group of right-wing activists has worked to persuade people that governments are by definition inept and corrupt.  Ask any nonprofit executive–whether she styles herself a "social entrepreneur" or not–and she’ll tell you that the voluntary sector cannot replace government in supplying people’s essential needs.  Ask the most effective and respected players in the sector, like UNICEF: they’ll tell you that support from governments is essential.

"The key with social entrepreneurs is their pragmatic approach,” said Pamela Hartigan of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, which is affiliated with the World Economic Forum. ”They’re not out there with protest banners; they’re actually developing concrete solutions."

And that, of course, distinguishes them from the hippie radicals at the March of Dimes who subsidized the eradication of polio, or the wild-eyed freaks who noticed how much food went to waste and created America’s Second Harvest (note: with a Federal grant!) to get it to people who needed it.

These folks aren’t famous, and they didn’t fly to Davos in first-class cabins or private jets, but they are showing that what it really takes to change the world isn’t so much wealth or power as creativity, determination and passion.

Well, no: what it really takes to change the world is resources directed where they’re needed rather than directed where they’re profitable.  These "social entrepreneurs" weren’t in Switzerland for the skiing–they went there because people with wealth and power were there, and when all’s said and done none of these ideas can be implemented without money and government support.

Is "social entrepreneurship" something other than "well-managed charity"?  If not, then it’s old hat.  If so–if it’s the idea that charity can triumph in the absence of government support–it’s snake oil. 


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2 Responses to “Rhetoric trumping reality”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    Kristof was just doing what they pay him to do at the paper: dismissing activism and its results and insisting that beneficial social change comes from the right wing. In Kristof-land evangelicals, investors, businesspeople, and religious authoritarians out-progress the progressives. His celebration of powerholders flatters NYT advertisers and people close to the Bush administration, but that’s just what happens when a brave, lone columnist dares to take on entrenched do-gooders.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    And these are the vaunted liberal media!

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