Two weeks ago I had a conference call with the UChicago branch of the United Nations Academic Impact – Aspire team. I’m trying to develop a series of programs for member universities to implement, and in attempting to articulate what is wrong with so much humanitarian NGO, NFP, development and “social enterprise” (← whatever that is) I used the following allegorical parable, which, I understand, is kind of trite and banal and endemic to the “leadership” field, but what can I do?
You know when you get a bunch of people in a room together, the natural result is for them to mill about more or less arbitrarily, chat and generate noise. Give them a purpose, some greater effort to work for, a narrative of which they are a part, and things start changing. Give everyone a part, some responsibility, show them the path and send them on their way with the rest of the group and meaning gets distilled from the chaos.
It’s this, I believe, that is wrong with so much of development work going on around the world today: You’ve got a bunch of individual, ostensibly rational actors just wandering about doing their own self-interested rational-actor thing. Which is okay, but you’re not going to get anything done that way. It’s all just noise. Give all those people in that room something bigger than themselves, a project on which all collaborate and must pull their own weight, then you’re getting somewhere. Now we start to discern melody and harmony: music from noise. It’s not enough to get a bunch of people talking in B-blat though. Together we concert and direct their efforts. It’s our job to make them sing.
I plan on expanding on this at some point. Protracting metaphor is fun. Check out the extremely sardonic Part One of Fixing Social Entrepreneurship.