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Social Ventures: a deal with the devil? & one such deal you might be interested in
by David Taylor on Sun 22 May 2016 04:41:54 PM EDT

“By playing up efforts like Toms, we as a society fool ourselves into believing that the world’s problems can be solved by enlightened consumerism… Larger aid agencies … have begun spending their precious funds on for-profit entities. They hope that their one-time donation will turn into everlasting economic engines that also churn out public goods… It’s as if there’s no point to saving lives or teaching children if you have to keep paying to do so.” [emphasis added] –p87-88 of Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama

Toyama’s insight begs several questions:

  1. Is EWB’s focus on scaling up ventures and spinning them off failing prey to this same obsession with one-time investments to create everlasting impact?
  2. Given the existence of opportunities to support and encourage new ventures [through EWB or World Vision (see below)], should we boycott them or capitalize on them?

Even without the allure of everlasting impact, social innovation challenges often rely on the colonial arrogance that we can come up with something that solves a problem in someone else’s backyard before we have done so in our own. Our arrogance about the nuances of faraway problems gives us far more optimism than we’d have about solving homelessness or obesity in our own city. Boris took this idea one step further and wondering about running a social venture competition in Nairobi to solve North American obesity.

I study how drinking water pipes fall apart in India for a living, but have little insight about the pipes in Walkerton Ontario, or on Native reserves, or in Flint Michigan; I live this colonial arrogance every day. I also lived this arrogance during my time with EWB as an African Program Staff; I was hired fresh out of undergrad to act as a consultant in a field I new little about. Both of these experiences inform my opinion that desipite the dangers, engaging with faraway problems is worthwhile.

In thinking about faraway problems, our empathy for the poor grows, our context knowledge broadens, and we grow as problem solvers, development practitioners, and empathetic humans. However, for these benefits to outweigh the costs, we must admit our colonial arrogance and humbly proceed with empathy.

So if you think that social innovation prizes can do more good than harm, some of my friends who work at World Vision [see the Post Script] have launched a competition about solving water and health issues in the Global South.

The opportunity is to create “market based solutions to some of the world’s most difficult development challenges.” They are collaborating with the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and Grand Challenges Canada to support students and recent graduates in creating and launching their businesses this summer. They’ll provide ideation support, incubation through technical advisory services, seed capital, and the expertise to market test their solutions.

The Competition consists of 2 rounds. The first round is an online competition that will start on Monday May 2nd, 2016 and end on Friday 10th June, 2016. Up to 10 winning teams will be identified in the first round. The 10 winning teams will receive support to help develop their ideas further. The second round is a face-to-face event where Round One winners will pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. Winners of the second round Competition will be awarded a package composed of up to $35K prize money.
Learn more today at:
The deadline for idea submission is Friday June 10th, 2016!

Post Script on World Vision:

Do EWBers still hate World Vision as much as we used to? Are the reasons still as valid?

I was an APS in Ghana in 2011-2012 on the AVC team and loved the opportunity EWB gave me to engage with really hard problems that matter. During my time with EWB, we tried to do things differently that the status quo (which was often typified with USAID or World Vision); we sponsored spreadsheets not children, and we invested in supporting systems not water pumps themselves. I suspect that these principles continue to be core to how EWB defines its theories of change.

My hope is that through competitions like this World Vision is open to learning and changing and doing development differently. So if you’re intruiged by their opportunity, give it a read and let me know what you think.

, Tue 31 May 2016 03:36:30 AM EDT

Thanks for sharing! A quick note to say that existing orgs aren't eligible to apply so we can't apply from the WASH team in Malawi, but I'd be happy to support someone interested in submitting a more systems-level idea! It looks like there could be a fair bit of flexibility beyond the usual "I have an idea for a new pump/filter/etc." and it would be great to push World Vision to look at some more complex interventions. Let me know if I can be useful!

- Kristina, WASH Catalysts Malawi