By Tim Frewer
It seems that the general direction of development practice and theory is the uncritical embrace of financial jargon. NGOs and development workers in the past ‘helped’ orphans and the marginalised, ‘provided’ goods and services and ‘advocated’ for the poor. But increasingly, we are led to believe that ‘entrepreneurs’ and ‘social enterprises’ are the avant garde of ‘change making’. They ‘invest’ in women and other vulnerable groups, they ‘innovate’ and ‘collaborate’ but, most importantly, they blur the boundaries between profit and charity. Their claim is not only that the search for profitability is compatible with ‘positive social outcomes’, but also that profit-seeking entities can actually achieve such goals more efficiently.
In fact, the boundary between capital accumulation and charity has long been blurred (if it ever really existed). Take for instance Cambodia with its swollen development industry. Millions of dollars worth of grants from bilateral donors get channelled into consultant companies, technical assistance and service providers. Then there are the loans from development banks that make profit from interest rates (even if they are low). Historically, development has always been infused with the rationale of securing profit, which has tended to be obscured by the moral call to help the vulnerable. So too in contemporary Cambodia, where the development industry is habitually immune from critiques over its often painfully obvious inefficiency and ineffectiveness.
But the new ‘social entrepreneurialism’ goes a step further. Unlike the grant project based model, it does not aim to feed off aid money. Rather, it wishes to revolutionise the entire practice of development by basing it on market principles. There is a word for this – neoliberalism. This new entrepreneurialism seeks to integrate profitability with positive social and environmental change. In the process it entirely marginalises those things that cannot have a profit component. Bizarrely, it does not critique older forms of development for embracing the market too aggressively, but rather for not embracing it enough.
All development now has to be ‘efficient’, ‘competitive’ and ’empowering’ whilst striving for ‘sustainability’ (read: secure profit). Social entrepreneurialism sees people not primarily as political subjects or rights bearers but as potential entrepreneurs who are to be invested in. It wants to create the poor as market actors. In other words, it wants to reorganise development so that flows of money and expertise are centred around expanding market principles. This is why in places like Cambodia there is a rapidly proliferating number of ‘impact hubs’ where ‘social entrepreneurs’ ‘network’ together to nut out the details of their vision.
There is a major problem here. If social entrepreneurialism is revolutionising development by reorganising it along market principles, then how is it different from regular businesses? Aren’t millions of people in the global south already running businesses that aim to ‘achieve positive social outcomes’? Does not your typical small business in, say, a market in Cambodia, strike a balance between profitability and the needs of family members who provide labour and neighbours who are the customers of the business? Yet, even now, most multi-nationals must have a ‘corporate social responsibility’ strategy.
When white middle class people hailing from places like Australia and America come to ‘empower’ and ‘invest’ in the poor in the global south to ‘create’ them as entrepreneurs, is there not a level of arrogance here? In places where the majority of the poor are much better at capitalism than those in the global north – being phenomenal savers and creating value from the most unlikely of places – is it not absurd to assume that such people have something to offer the poor? Fundamentally, are the woes of the poor really caused by a lack of entrepreneurialism? In Cambodia, for instance, people struggle not for lack of entrepreneurialism, but due to having no shelter from the devastating effects of a predatory capitalism that shamelessly hyper-exploits labour and natural resources.
Nonetheless, there is more at stake here than merely being arrogant. Development is being transformed in the wake of the global financial crisis and the ideological triumph of neoliberalism. There is now enormous pressure to ‘leverage private finance’ to cover the costs of climate change and poverty in the global south. Green bonds, social impact bonds, revolving funds and concessional loans are already set to dwarf official development aid. In one swift move, climate debt, environmental justice and even common but differentiated responsibility go out the window. NGOs and governments are under ever-increasing pressure to make projects financially sustainable by ensuring cost recovery. This is an impossible task, because working on environmental justice, working in solidarity with activists and working with the poor and marginalised will never be profitable, no matter how much social entrepreneurs spruik their neoliberal theories.
There is no need to work in the interests of capitalists and claim it is in the interest of the poor. There are already more than enough capitalists working on capitalism. Starting a business is fine, but that is all it is – an entity that seeks to make profit. Even if a business does have good intentions, there is no need to elevate oneself to the dizzy heights of social entrepreneurialism.
To hell with good intentions. To hell with neoliberal financial jargon. What is needed is not a return to the heyday of NGOs. What is needed is a new path. Not one that pushes even more aggressively for the marketisation of everything, but one that starts with those painfully obvious problems of development that have been neglected for so long due to the hubris of development jargon. Namely, the fact that development has never managed to shed its colonial past; that it is still dominated by a small group of predominantly white, middle-class ‘experts’; that it is unable to take account of privilege or race; that it feeds off the vulnerability of people of colour; and that it has become so mixed up with the twin forces of sovereignty and neoliberalism that it has become an instrument for the reproduction of power.
Tim is a researcher and PhD student at the University of Sydney. He has done various research projects in Cambodia over the past ten years and has a budding interest in Myanmar and Laos. You can follow him on twitter @Tim_Frewer.
Featured image shows a sign reading “not business as usual”. Photo from vimeo.com.
Latest posts by Guest Author/s (see all)
- No ordinary hazard: Risking climate change - February 9, 2017
- Achieving social cohesion in Iraqi “nation building” - January 26, 2017