Do you remember that time in your youth when you talked about changing the world? It seemed as though that was our one and only mission, to turn the system on its head and make it so much better. The student riots in Paris in 1968 were a magnet and a spur for these ideals. Everything seemed possible. So within our grasp. "To be young was very heaven." Then, life happened and there were other priorities. The call of youth fades and one engages the world with all its realities and pressures. But those ideals and hopes never really vanish and in recent months I have been involved with Social Entrepreneurship, one of the fastest expanding areas of work in the world. Its most forward thinking leaders are already having a profound impact on some of the toughest issues facing contemporary society. Their idealistic quests compel us to think about some of the fundamental questions facing us.
What is our understanding of the world?
What does it mean to be human?
Is there such a thing as collective humanity and do we have a collective responsibility for others?
The lives that we live in the developed countries are truly extraordinary. It is an amazing privilege to live with super abundance, to have virtually anything you want and need. We have never enjoyed such a quality of life in our entire history. But we are in the minority. Forty percent of mankind lives in poverty and a further 20% lives in deep poverty. We are talking here about subsistence levels of $1- $2 a day. Most of us are concerned about this situation, but we generally keep our distance. And I wonder if we are truly invested in the solutions. In the meantime, inequality is rife and we can see the great Gap in Hope and the Gap in Opportunity growing ever wider. The answer to the hypothetical question: "Is it only the rich that have talented children?" is no. But, parental prosperity is critical in child development as demonstrated in a recent book, From Parents to Children: The Intergenerational Transmission of Advantage.
If poverty means food scarcity, miserable living conditions, poor sanitation, violence, crime, poor health, infant mortality and low life expectancy, who created it? The poor did not create it. They are born into it in the same way that the rich are born into privilege. But it is this apparently foundational economic structure that allows so many people to justify the existence of poverty as really just the price of doing business. And it is this seemingly intractable poverty that produces the worst of humanity and, in its wake, perhaps even the evils of religious fundamentalism and terrorism.
So. Are the poor hopeless, worthless parasites on society who constitute an unavoidable business expense? Or are they an amazing asset base full of potential, ideas, creativity, curiosity, hopes, and dreams of happiness? And what would it mean to tap this potential, to help it flourish?
I have been studying the lives, philosophies, and work of some astonishing Social Entrepreneurs, people who have never lost that urgent charge to Change the World. These are visionaries who have produced astonishingly innovative programs to tackle inequality and harness the power of those in poverty.
I looked at Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, who founded the Grameen Bank, the Bank for the Poor, in Bangladesh in 1983. He created the idea of microloans, tiny amounts of money that can transform lives by empowering entrepreneurship. These loans, for instance, allow seamstresses to buy technology (a sewing machine) which can transform their productivity; create more jobs; allow their children to stop working from home and go to school; and provide funds for shoes, mosquito nets and sugar for tea. Livestock owners can buy more animals, increasing the milk yield and helping to build their economy. Or 500,000 beggars, the so-called "Untouchables," can, with a loan of $12, transport goods to homes and combine begging with being personal shoppers. As many as 22,000 people have now left the life of begging to become managers of their own small businesses. Ninety-five percent of the Bank's clients are women and their repayment rates are 95%--98%. Grameen has 8.3M borrowers who form part of a supportive community. It's a big transformative idea.
Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever recipient of the Noble Peace Prize, from NW Pakistan, is still a teenager, and advocates passionately for girls' education. Because of her activism, she received death threats from the Taliban, famously survived an assassination attempt in 2013 and is now creating educational programs and schools. (Photo by Russell Watkins/Department for International Development. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes. After experiencing the poverty in parts of Argentina and seeing the diseases that small children without shoes are exposed to, he came up with the most sensational value proposition: For every pair of TOMS shoes that you buy his company will donate a pair of shoes. So far those donations are in excess of a million.
Sugata Mitra who has questioned the whole system of traditional education based on his "hole-in-the-wall" experiment. He placed freely accessible computers in impoverished communities in India, and waited to see what kids would do with such machines. He was blown away by the results. "The education system isn't broken. It's wonderfully constructed. It's just that we don't need it anyway. It's outdated."
Salman Khan, a former Hedge Fund manager, and now the founder of the Khan Academy. He has revolutionized the way video can be used as an educational tool to learn new concepts at the right pace and speed for the individual.
Bunker Roy and his "45 year-old love story with the poor." Leaving his privileged existence in Delhi, he experimented with living on $1 a day. His experiences inspired him to create the Barefoot College, training villagers to develop solutions in solar energy, water, education, healthcare, women's education and wasteland development. "The Barefoot College is the only College where the teacher is the learner and the learner the teacher."
Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water, which he describes as a start-up for-profit without profits. He discovered that 80% of all disease on the planet can be traced back to the lack of clean drinking water. He now provides clean water to 17 countries and more than a million people.
All these amazing people share some of the same characteristics: They understand the issues and problems and can envision remedies. They change systems and create solutions that are not only successful but also sustainable. They are a contradiction - people who are both visionaries but at the same time realists. Most of all, they are great Leaders and Innovators who continue to challenge our orthodoxy.
Their philosophies share commonalities too:
• They all hold up education as the foundation for improvement at the individual, family and societal levels, but they question very deeply the methods, relevance, and value of current systems of education.
• They value Social Justice and people above profits. For them, the notion that the poor represent the price of doing business is anathema. They understand that poverty is the result of choices and structures society has made.
• But most of all they believe that poverty is An Externally Imposed Phenomenon, which produces the misery and inequality that we see in the world today. They believe that the poor are fantastic human beings who represent some of the greatest potential for growth and human development. They are not the "deserving poor"; they are the poor who deserve our serious respect and attention.
Where is Business in all this? What is Corporate Social Responsibility?
Well, the great economist Milton Friedman stated, "The only responsibility a corporation has is to make profits." Many have responded to this narrow view. "Are profits more important than people? How would you monetize need?" But Business is beginning to change, particularly when it acknowledges its membership in the community and therefore its responsibility within the socio eco-system. Apple, Prudential, IBM, AMEX, Target, Home Depot are all stepping up to the plate with social programs and investments. As an example, consider Patagonia's (the sports goods producer) mission statement, "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."
Where are the arts and music in this mix?
In the UK, there are good programs linking the arts and wellbeing, or the arts and criminal justice system that focus on prevention and rehabilitation. There are programs by groups like Streetwise Opera, and Musicians Without Borders that target the homeless and refugee and asylum seekers.
In the States, there is the burgeoning El Sistema movement which now has over 100 Nucleos across the nation, many of them start-ups. All these programs need to be supported and encouraged. But there is also a sense that much more could be done in harnessing the power of the arts and music for social value. More can be done in universities and conservatories to stimulate awareness of our world and to provide skill training so that artists can make a contribution to society beyond the stage or art gallery.
At the end of the day, it is our world, and its existential problems and issues are the result of the choices we have made. But there is cause for optimism. We have these crazy highly motivated people out there who are beginning to move things. And one day, they--and perhaps, we--will change the world.
The writer is the Visiting Professor for Music and Social Entrepreneurship at Berklee Valencia. This blog is based upon a Lecture he gave on February 5 at Berklee.