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Markets: Hot, Aid: Not

 Elmira Bayrasli is an entrepreneurship junkie who writes and works on global development issues. She writes for Forbes and Huffington Post and is currently working on a book about aid and entrepreneurship.


I’m confused. Global leaders are in Busan, South Korea this week to, as OECD official Brian Atwood (formerly USAID head) “deal with the terrible fragmentation of the aid effort.” Someone, please get the man a copy of Humpty-Dumpty.

Haven’t we moved beyond government-led aid efforts? Didn’t top down development efforts, rendered ineffective, give way to those working from the ground up to build markets, cure diseases, educate girls, deliver clean water and rebuild homes? Social entrepreneurship, I thought, is the new development.

Isn’t it this sector, finding innovative solutions to global challenges, that has marched purposefully forward to get stuff done? (PG choice of words, this is a family blog after all.) Why then am I afraid that instead of becoming the new development, social entrepreneurship is fated to be merely the old foreign aid: confused, ineffective and self-serving?

That there is still hope and interest in traditional aid, as demonstrated by Busan, is one reason for my fear. The saccharine-fueled optimism dished out by many in the social enterprise sector through idealistic clichés is another. Your donated shoes and t-shirts aren’t going to help the people in Africa. And everyone is not an entrepreneur folks.

The social entrepreneurs that drew me into the field knew that. They were the irreverent and critical souls that built the movement into what it is today. “Teach a man to fish,” was a laughable notion. People in the developing world have been entrepreneurs forever. Fishing wasn’t their problem. Getting access to a pole, a system to preserve the fish and get it to market was.

Therein lies my point: entrepreneurship, social or otherwise, is more than just an entrepreneur. It’s the ecosystem that allows that individual, what I’ve dubbed venturers, to thrive. It’s the government (yes, it has a role too) that builds roads, lights on that road and the safety from looters. It’s the universities that educate the workers and incubate ideas. It’s the private sector that funds ideas and sparks market movement.

“An end to poverty,” remarked PDT boss Scott Gilmore, “is being figured out by a small entrepreneur, a new NGO or an unknown researcher, not in Busan.” He is right. It’s a point that social entrepreneurs want to take to heart as well.

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  1. Brian Doe says:

    Your are 100% correct. Just don’t expect the establishment to go away quickly or quietly. The entrenched bureaucracies of yester-year will continue getting in the way for a long time. Too bad that many good resources will be wasted in the process.

  2. […] important groups. As a student of entrepreneurial actions Elmira has coined the word “Venturers” to describe entrepreneurs who work within an ecosystem that supports them and facilitates […]

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