Being an anthropologist concerned with poverty alleviation myself, the name Paul Farmer, has a forceful ring. Farmer, a medical doctor and anthropologist, author of books such as Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor (2005), is also the co-founder of Partners in Health. Since its first hospital in Haiti, which provides free treatment to poor patients suffering from tuberculosis and AIDS, PiH has developed into a worldwide health organization.
I heard Farmer speak at a conference of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago a few years ago and was very impressed with his uncompromising views on poverty and human dignity. Thus, when Social Edge featured Dr. Farmer’s closing speech at this years Skoll Forum, I read it immediately.
In it Farmer pointed to a blind spot in the enthusiasm about social entrepreneurship, when he critiqued the preoccupation (even fetishization) of the movement with scale.
After seeing earlier waves of development practice fail, social entrepreneurs – many of whom are financed by a new breed of ex-entrepreneurs immersed in the culture of capitalism – apply business thinking to poverty reduction. Foundations and funds such as Ashoka and Acumen Fund are interested to support initiatives, which are transferable from one place to the other and are scalable. And they are doing admirable work.
Yet, as Paul Farmer reminds us, scaling and business solutions might only work for a certain number of issues and people. But what about those poor people, who are not cost-effective customers? Will they be left unserved by the new social entrepreneur movement? When the poor are re-cast as customers, will we loose sight of the fact, that certain goods and services should be rights, not commodities?
Farmer asks: “Does anyone really believe that a mother loves her newborn more if she had to pay for some sort of user fee for prenatal or obstetrics care?” and calls for us to include the poor people in the social entrepreneur movement and allow them to be social entrepreneurs.
He has a very valid point: its great to be able to scale services and commodities and thus reach out to a large number of poop people, but we should equally support small-scale initiatives, closely in touch with local communities, who might not be potential customers, but who nevertheless have the right to a dignified life.
As Mike Lee comments: “Farmer … was asking us not to forget that all acts of compassion (even the smallest), and all efforts to alleviate suffering (even those difficult to scale) are worthwhile and valuable, even sacred.”