New Colonialism: the myth of social enterprise

January 30th, 2016

When I first started traveling to developing countries for projects, the feedback I got from the general public was about the same as travel to any developed foreign country (Italy? pickpockets! Australia? spiders!) but with the added conviction that luxury is non-existent anywhere further than ten miles from a Starbucks.

And it makes sense. If a cruise to Cancun counts as adventure, I suppose iffy hot water in Kampala counts as absolutely roughing it. I was honestly surprised myself. Even over the past four or five years, the adoption of technology in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia has skyrocketed to levels you couldn't imagine. And a shocking fact:

I get more consistent bars of 3G throughout rural Uganda than I do in a drive from Memphis to Indianapolis.

I spent several years producing a lot of work for NGOs. I've wondered about the effectiveness of Western aid as we shower it relentlessly upon the global south. The effectiveness is insanely bipolar: either totally essential or actively harmful. Intentions are usually in the right place, but practice is rarely spot on.

And that's where the myth of the social enterprise comes in. It's why something born from wholly good intentions, but plagued by guilt and ignorance, can devolve into an ineffective mess. In a total knee-jerk reaction from the past few centuries of imperialism and exploitation, it's easy to swing the pendulum into condescension and another adulation of the white messiah.

The most effective way to foster growth and progress in a developing country is to establish viable, self-sustainable business and trade. This removes the artificial dependence upon donation & time from the west, and adds productivity and meaning to local labor.

Charity has it's place: and emergency humanitarian aid is definitely most important especially in crucial situations like natural disasters, war zones, and droughts. But outside of that, social enterprise is often just a cloaked form of New Colonialism. It creates dependency instead of productivity.

If you want to see the single most entrepreneurial success stories of all time, go to Kibera in Nairobi, or Khayelitsha in Cape Town, or West Point in Monrovia, some of the largest and densest slums in Africa, with some of the most miserable living conditions imaginable.

You'll find teens yelling "top it up!" while reselling cellphone minute cards at a small profit. You'll find a guy repairing motorcycles outside a barber shop. You'll find the most clever marketer in the world building an internet empire in a back-alley internet cafe, also run by a free-wheeling entrepreneur.

Not all of these guys will make it out of the slum, but they will make it a lot further, compared to where they started, than the vast majority of Americans.

The global south...sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America, and south-east Asia...will undoubtedly become the next global north. Probably sooner than you think. And the Ugandans and Kenyans and Liberians will make that happen, not us.