Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are we Winning the Race?

Happy Earth Day, Everyone!! I had a chance to follow from a distance the Skoll World Forum that took place in Oxford from April 14th to 16th. I was actually getting ready for a trip to South Africa and I ended up grounded in Boston because of that Icelandic volcano ash cloud…

So, I read the summaries of every session on the Social Edge web site. I was struck by the extraordinary variety of subjects that were addressed and by the enthusiasm that this Forum aroused. Videos posted on the site featured happy participants who seemed aware to be part of a global movement (apparently there was a good representation of folks from Southern countries) in which everyone wants the same thing (broadly, make this world a better place) and goes in the same direction, whatever folks work on specifically, improving access to drinking water or supplying financing to SMEs.

I had felt the same momentum and enthusiasm at SoCap 09 last September in San Francisco (see my earlier post about it).

I must say however that sometimes I wonder whether we are talking about a movement or rather a small club closed to the outside world since you tend to run into the same folks and see the same presenters in these conferences. But lets’ remain optimistic – last weekend around the same time that the World Skoll Forum was happening, there was a massive conference on global health at Yale in New Haven with a truly impressive set of presenters. And the other thing that makes me optimistic about the viability of this movement is the increasing number of young folks under 40 who are active in the social sector (however broad its definition) and are in the trenches day in, day out trying to make things happen.

Now, let me go back to one of my favorite themes - sounds like a broken record I am sure… The topic is impact and results. All this enthusiasm and energy for what exactly? At the end of the day, the objective is to make this world a better place. Are we successful? Isolated initiatives have that powerful PR effect when they work: it is nice and easy to communicate on x number of houses built in a village or y number of farmers whose income doubled. And yes, if there are a lot of those isolated initiatives, there will be some impact. But as I wrote in post some time ago on social investing, what is the real macro impact? To what extent are we getting the needle to move?

I have some doubts that the needle is significantly moving actually but the truth is that we don’t really know. It is just very complex and expensive to aggregate results of those disparate projects out there, big and small. Even doing so at the scale of a country (not a big one for that matter) is complicated…

Why is it important however? Because all of us in that movement are engaged in a race against time – look out there and consider a not so sustainable development in most places, climate change over which we have little control, or social inequalities that keep widening (just think about how the middle class is struggling right now in rich countries – we did not quite see that one coming, did we?).

I don’t know whether we are winning that race or not. But what I do know is that we have to do a better job of measuring our collective progress and put that outcome in a standard macro-economic context so that we will better understand where we are in that race but also what it will take to win that race and cause the needle to actually move…

If that does not happen, don’t be surprised to see people dropping out of the race – discouraged and disheartened because as rewarding to them and valuable in general their efforts are they won’t be able to figure out how their actions are helping the greater good.

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