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Tuesday, 7 November 2006

David Bornstein, author of new book "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas" talks to TorontotheBetter.net.

The Invisible Hand Produces a Better World/ - "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas" by David Bornstein by Taodhg (Tim) Burns of TorontotheBetter.net [ http://www.TorontotheBetter.net ] Capitalism with a human face, we've seen variants on this theme particularly since communism was consigned to the garbage dump of history when the Berlin Wall fell in that now oh so distant 20th century. In this new century David Bornstein is offering something that sounds different: doing good with a capitalist face. His new book delivers news that's certainly good enough to print but, he argues, usually doesn't make it into the mainstream media. David Bornstein will have none of the fashionable cynicism that passes for wisdom in much of the Western media. But first the bad news. It's September, 2004. George Bush, he the younger, and more cowardly, is still in the White House, freedom is breaking out in Iraq in a hail of bullets and assassinations, thousands of Africans continue to die of AIDs, Toronto's urban grandmother Jane Jacobs has just released "Dark Age Ahead", a very un-grandmotherly book about the bleak outlook for, well, pretty much everything and Cathy Crowe, leading advocate for solutions to Canada's homelessness crisis has recently publicly declared herself to be depressed about continuing lack of political will and action in Canada. Yet in the face of all this doom and gloom here's David Bornstein declaring that the world is getting better. In "How to Change the World" he narrates a series of tales about real people, many of them poor, or otherwise on the sidelines of the economic mainstream, who are generating wealth for others as well as themselves, while improving the quality of life for all of us. I was interested to find out how and why Bornstein thought our collective pessimism/optimism compass should be swiveling.

Taodhg Burns: A reviewer on Amazon said your book was mainly for policy makers. That's a little limiting if you're going to create change at the grassroots. Who would you say your book is for?

David Bornstein: The audience is wider than that. It's for anybody who's interested in the world, teachers, entrepreneurs, in fact anybody who turns on the evening news.

TB: And what's your main point?

DB: A lot of important things get missed on the news. For example in the West the .org boom was bigger than .com. In fact, more than double the number of non-profits have appeared in the last ten years. The same thing is happening in India. This is important to recognize. There's a deep sleep in both government and the corporate sector about this. Government is in the lap of the corporate sector. and is often not doing what it should, but many people are taking an alternative business path, building, assembling resources and listening to the market. They make like regular businesses but with a goal of social change. For example, since 1997 the number of micro loans has increased from 7 million to 50 million. 1/4 million people are now getting credit. 10 to 15 % of the world's poor now have access to credit. But there is a blind spot in the media. The average person believes the world is getting worse. The total picture is unseen. It is important to know that the potential is wider and deeper, e.g. Child line in India and the Disabled Act in the U.S. Brazilians know more about GE (Genetically Engineered) food than we do in the north. Deep forces are happening. This is not just a fad. Education and information is driving change. We're better off than we were ten years ago. Things are definitely better for women.

TB: But…

DB: Yes there are still problems. I'm not a Panglossian. The political process works against people. How do we connect them? Accountability - we must make democracy work better, use new tools, for example mobilizing the vote. in the US, improving education via competitive schools. Allow room for innovation. Let entrepreneurs improve education. For example, in the US the College Summit tutoring programme [for "low-average" academically achieving kids] in the U.S. has an 80% college enrolment rate. It's becoming a bit like a marketplace. It's hard to achieve change - there are lots of vested interests. But I don't think taxes have to be so high. Entrepreneurs can improve yields from invested dollars. E.g. change in hospitals is possible this way. Where does innovation come from? People with ideas like Wilder Penfield in Montreal who built the Neurological Institute in Montreal [where Bornstein's father was recently treated for an aneurysm.] Somebody's vision helped save my father.

TB: Another Montrealer, Communist Norman Bethune pioneered the first mobile blood transfusion unit and saved lives during the Spanish Civil War. But how can benevolently motivated innovation connect with key societal levers like government, NGOs and social movements?

DB: Take the Fair Trade movement about economic globalization. What needs to happen to make globalization beneficent? Political pressure on governments to prevent poor people getting shafted. But that's not enough. Globalization is about linkages, like a highway. There aren't enough on-ramps for the poor. Who can build the on-ramps? Social entrepreneurs, like the sisal farmers in Brazil who dealt with the challenge of connecting farmers to the marketplace. They built a sisal marketing business that allowed the farmers to improve the prices they got. It happened for coffee too. A lot of fair trade coffee is now sold to consumers around the world. Many elements must come together. Social entrepreneurs make people aware and make market linkages, e.g. micro credit.

TB: But, setting aside the issue of hanging social programmes on marketplace vagaries isn't there a basic problem of scale (lots of little enterprises) and coordination (a need for linkages among them)?

DB: Yes. We need structures to be put in place to link initiatives, organizations parallel to mainstream business, to spread best practices, do management consulting. But being creative, like children's enterprises, is key. In new organizations we need to put those affected in charge of change. Make a presumption of competence. There are many important ways to enact the same principles. Just don't reinvent the wheel. Do like scientists to share knowledge and avoid unnecessary duplication.

TB: Let a thousand flowers bloom! But how to get the word out?

DB: We need to get mainstream journalists to treat to treat SE as big news. Journalists are muck rakers. They're interested in status and shame.

TB: Like Michael Moore?

DB: Moore is doing things that journalists aspire to.

TB: So what to do? Our own thing or use the mainstream media?

DB: Do both. Your own thing and change the mainstream, like women's studies in universities. Start a New York Times beat for Social Entrepreneurship. There are many different fronts through which to empower the citizenry, so many models, so many examples.


Like Michael Moore, David Bornstein believes we need more, and better, democracy, meaning access to power for all people. Unlike Moore he focuses on what can be achieved whatever the machinations of the regressive and focuses on economics over politics, speaking more about the possibility of positive social enterprise than the ugly forces that generate or frustrate it. In truth, though they may never get along, there's something that connects these two practical idealists. Simple arithmetic will never produce a satisfactory calculation of the state of the world. Petty-bourgeois utopianism it may sometimes appear to be, and theoretically inimical the events Bornstein narrates under his unifying conceptual schema, but any popular struggle must be inspired by hope as well as outrage. In spite of all the imagination, creativity and entrepreneurial zeal that can be mustered in start-ups around the world, there will still be many dragons to slay, much complacency to resist and structural inertia to excite. But whatever the struggle and regulation that must support innovators like those described in David Bornstein's new book they are a necessary raw material for changes many see as necessary if we are to build that better world where noone dies of AIDS for lack of drugs, or of starvation in the midst of plenty , where children are not led to kill children, and Tutsis and Hutus of all kinds and origins live together in peace and respect as they did before the genocide in Rwanda. In the long run we may all be dead, but we can make things better before we do. "How to Change the World" reminds us that we should and can. Successful voyages require clear sight and grit to avoid the shoals of wish fulfillment , but a gust of optimism may be needed to set us on out way or, from time to time, get us off the rocks. While many others' glasses are half empty, David Bornstein's is half full. An invisible hand is filling it.
For ordering information about How to Change the World, contact postmaster@TorontotheBetter.net or call 416 925-2345

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