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Globalization and Greater Good

February 22, 2004

Of Globalization and the Greater Good


JAVED ABIDI traveled to the United States from India as a teenager in the late 1970's for treatment of his spinal cord. It was too late to reverse the damage caused by a birth defect, but American specialists started his rehabilitation and showed Mr. Abidi how to live with the physical challenge of using a wheelchair for mobility.

Mr. Abidi returned to India with the startling idea that people with physical challenges should be able to lead their lives the way other people do - and not be hidden away or forced to beg on the streets. He began organizing a movement to defend the rights of the disabled in India, an effort that took off after a telephone conference call between a group of American activists and Mr. Abidi's allies. With the help of modern communications systems, the ideas spread quickly.

Globalization is often criticized because of the economic disruptions it creates, the diseases it can spread and the severe gaps in wealth it reveals. But in a new book, David Bornstein offers a different perspective on globalization that is thoroughly uplifting and encouraging.

In "How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas" (Oxford University Press, $28), Mr. Bornstein shows how new communications tools are allowing activists, whom he calls social entrepreneurs, to bring about change at the grass-roots level.

Mr. Bornstein spent five years traveling around the world to gather material for the book. Readers are with him on the ground in India, Brazil, South Africa and Poland, among other places. In each, he chronicles how people are tackling problems like the lack of electricity in rural areas, child abuse, illiteracy and poor medical care for those with AIDS.

In one clear case of how technology has played a positive role, a social entrepreneur named Jeroo Billimoria created a telephone hot line in India for abandoned and abused children. Her group also set up a database to analyze call patterns and identify specific trouble spots in cities, such as railway stations where homeless children gather and often develop health problems. The service has now spread to 75 cities.

One of the heroes of the book is Bill Drayton, an American who was influenced by the nonviolent traditions of Gandhi and created an organization called Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. This group looks for emerging social entrepreneurs around the world and aims to give them money, often in association with other foundations. Mr. Bornstein does a good job of weaving together the story of Ashoka, a group named for an Indian emperor who practiced the doctrine of nonviolence, with individual tales and placing their activities in a wider context.

That broader analysis, he argues, suggests the birth of a new sector of human activity, beyond government and business. It is becoming a vocation and a mainstream area of inquiry.

"Around the world, people are encountering similar problems: inadequate education and health systems, environmental threats, declining trust in political institutions, entrenched poverty, high crime rates and so forth," he writes. "But in poorer countries, social entrepreneurs have to reach far more people with far less money, so they have to be especially innovative to advance solutions of scale."

These people, he writes, recognize new ideas and know how to market and promote them.

"An idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skillfully marketed before it will actually shift people's perceptions and behavior," he writes. An "obsessive individual" is needed, he adds, to build a coalition on a shoestring budget and to translate an idea into action. Such people, he asserts, hold the keys to economic development. There are only two discouraging notes in the book. In the first chapter, Mr. Bornstein argues that social entrepreneurs are necessary because governments "appear increasingly impotent in the face of concentrated corporate power." The author seems to see the entrepreneurs as working against unnamed, presumably evil corporations.

Yet his book does not support that argument. In most cases, his social entrepreneurs are fighting ignorance and poverty. In very few cases can these injustices be blamed on a corporation.

In fact, one of the minor heroes of the book is McKinsey & Company, which provided advisory services to Vera Cordeiro, a Brazilian activist who tried to improve the health care that children receive after leaving a hospital.

THE second disappointment, obviously not Mr. Bornstein's fault, is that social entrepreneurship is not taking hold in Africa, with the possible exception of South Africa, where advocates for people with AIDS have mobilized. There is something about the depth of despair in Africa that has made it difficult for Ashoka to seed the clouds of social entrepreneurship, in part because Africans, he writes, tend to be skeptical about Western organizations and tend to favor a statist approach to development.

So the social entrepreneurship chronicled by Mr. Bornstein will probably not cure all that ails the planet, but there is little question that he has identified a force for change. The book is must reading for anyone who cares about building a more equitable, and therefore more stable, world.

William J. Holstein is editor in chief of Chief Executive magazine.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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