At the recent Skoll World Forum, the Berkeley Bottom Line bloggers covered Dr. Paul Farmer‘s speech following the Replication and Scale session. Diverging from discussions of business models and financial feasibility, Farmer offered a human touch to the idea of social entrepreneurship and scale. They quote from his speech:
Our social entrepreneurs and all its supporters are obsessed with something called scale. The fetishization of scaling up our work is a source of both anxiety and hope. Bringing a new innovative project to scale often feels like the only way to leave a footprint of a good kind in an afflicted world in need of good ideas. . .What’s been shocking to me over the past 25 years is the lightning speed at which policy makers, themselves shielded from the risks [that the poor face], decide that a complex intervention is too difficult or not cost-effective in Haiti or Africa, or not sustainable. In microfinance parlance, many of my patients are “poor credit risks.” But aren’t they the very people we claim to serve in the first place?
This is why I termed my speech a “Loyalist’s critique” of our movement.
We need to be aware that each of the terms and concepts and tools we’ve developed can be used to deny the destitute access to goods and services that sometimes should be rights, not commodities. Does anyone really believe that a mother loves her newborn more if she had to pay some sort of users fee for prenatal or obstetrics care? Such claims are “piffle” as you say in your country. But they are also reflective of an ideology that has crept into our entrepreneur movement. This way of seeing the world has deep, deep roots. It’s been remarked upon already but it’s our culture that is hard to see. It’s our culture that needs to change. Look around you and you’ll see people of every hue but there are not poor people here. It’s not that they need an invitation to Oxford. It’s that they need us to include them in our movement and allow them to be social entrepreneurs.
Farmer reminds the social entrepreneurship world that while scaling can make ideas visible or widespread, we need to remain critical about the motive and means behind scale, and keep the beneficiaries at the center of decision making. All too often, the cost-benefit analyses associated with scale reduces real people into dollar figures.
A NextBillion.net post covers this topic as well, where Moses Lee offers a different definition of scale: “increasing business transactions that positively affect the lives of the poor.” For social entrepreneurs, is scale a business concept or a social and (as Farmer suggests) moral consideration?
This discussion on scale is amidst rapid growth in social innovations around the world, and the question remains on how to maximize impact while staying true to the core of a social mission.