How best do we meet the enormous social and humanitarian needs we find everywhere in the world today? There is no one right answer, no one perfect solution. Sustainable development will demand a variety of approaches, including much new thinking and innovative work.
Two relatively new ideas we wrestle with frequently here at Worldchanging are social entrepreneurship and base of the pyramid businesses. Both are approaches with their problems (and many critics), but both also offer useful insights into the business of creating change.
Social entrepreneurship involves either businesses serving social ends, or social programs run in the manner of businesses. The idea is to leverage business' unparalleled ability to get things done in order to serve needs which have traditionally been addressed solely through charity and governmental entitlements. Critics charge that this blurring of the boundary between profit- and change-making enterprises leads many funders and investors to commit category errors when judging social enterprises, often demeaning the true goals (poverty reduction, public health, etc.) when those goals prove resistant to business-modeled fixes, but such approaches have also, quite clearly, worked in a number of cases.
Base of the pyramid efforts aim at bringing the world's poorest people into the global economy by marketing goods and services to them which help better meet their needs. At its worst, this becomes a means of wringing micro-profits from the poor without in any meaningful way changing their circumstances. At its best, however, it brings transformative tools, from micro-finance and micro-insurance, to needed goods made available at an affordable price, into the lives of the poor.
Together, social entrepreneurship and base of the pyramid approaches illuminate a much broader trend, which is to treat entrenched social and sustainability difficulties as problems capable of solution through the conscious and context-sensitive application of innovation.