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How social entrepreneurs are changing the world

October 15, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
In “Getting Beyond Better,” Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, explores how social entrepreneurs can confront the status quo to improve the lives of others in real, measurable ways. She sits down for a conversation with economics correspondent Paul Solman.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a look at how individuals are tackling social issues around the globe through innovative programs, the concept known as social entrepreneurship.

It’s the focus of a new book called “Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works.” The co-author is Sally Osberg, president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation.

For the record, the Skoll Foundation is an underwriter of the NewsHour.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, sat down with her in New York, part of our weekly series Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sally Osberg, welcome.

SALLY OSBERG, Author, “Getting Beyond Better”: Thank you, Paul. It’s wonderful to be here.

PAUL SOLMAN: You write about the key to social entrepreneurship being an equilibrium shift. What do you mean?

SALLY OSBERG: It’s a status quo in which — which affects everybody.

But it takes the entrepreneur to see how to shift that status quo. Think of Larry Page and Sergey Brin. There’s this Internet full of information, and yet there’s no ability for the ordinary person to search out and retrieve what she or he wants to know.

They develop a search engine, Google. The rest is history, right? The difference is that the social entrepreneur also understands that this equilibrium, this status quo, is affecting some marginalized population in some very significant way, and that population very rarely has the power or the means to effect the transition on its own. Enter the social entrepreneur.

PAUL SOLMAN: Like Molly Melching, whose organization Tostan, has been working in West African villages for 30 years now on human rights issues, most notably, eliminating the painful and dangerous 2,000-year-old practice of female genital mutilation.

SALLY OSBERG: Something that seems pretty horrific to many of us in the West.

PAUL SOLMAN: Disgusting, even, right?

SALLY OSBERG: Yes. Yes. Yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: How dare you? You’re doing what?


But we don’t get there by wagging our fingers at these populations and saying, how could you? It’s up to those people themselves to decide whether they’re going to cut their daughters or not.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what’s the key to changing people’s attitudes or empowering women?

SALLY OSBERG: It wasn’t until Molly Melching realized that Senegal had actually signed onto the conventions to eliminate all forms of violence against women that she realized that these people had rights they weren’t even aware of.

Once they understand they have these rights, they can begin to poke their heads up from this equilibrium, from this status quo, and determine what’s in their best interest.

PAUL SOLMAN: Another custom moving quickly from locally accepted to globally rejected, child labor, an illegal, but persistent practice in India’s rug industry.

CHILD (through interpreter): We work from 8:00 a.m. until midnight.

PAUL SOLMAN: Engineer-turned-children’s-rights-activist Kailash Satyarthi, who shared the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, had been rescuing children from virtual slavery for decades, but, says Osberg:

SALLY OSBERG: Kailash understood that rescuing children wasn’t going to do the job, 20 kids at a time, when there were 200 who were being trafficked and brought into these camps, their tiny little fingers, you know, tying the knots in these rugs? He came up with the idea for a label that would send a clear signal to consumers that this rug was made without child labor.

Target, for example, has just committed to sourcing all its handwoven rugs with the GoodWeave label. That’s an equilibrium change in motion.

MAN (through interpreter): I am free.

SALLY OSBERG: In fact, child labor in the handwoven carpet industry in India has come down from a million children to something around 200,000.

PAUL SOLMAN: And there are plenty of higher-tech examples, like Kiva.

SALLY OSBERG: The founders of Kiva were among the first social entrepreneurs to try to create a technology platform for micro-lending, creating that opportunity for ordinary people to invest $25, $100, $500 in the micro-entrepreneurs who were bootstrapping themselves out of poverty in the developing world.

And that actually is what enabled Kiva to scale.

PAUL SOLMAN: Scale, you mean to go from small to…


PAUL SOLMAN: … big with a huge impact.

SALLY OSBERG: From 20,000 people on the platform, to today millions of people on the platform, millions of lenders, millions of borrowers, and, of course, dozens and dozens of micro-finance institutions sitting in the middle.

PAUL SOLMAN: And speaking of scale, consider APOPO, the lifesaving non-governmental organization that grew out of Bart Weetjens’ childhood fascination with rodents and his grown-up realization that the African giant pouched rat could be trained to detect land mines.

These are suicide rats?


SALLY OSBERG: Actually, they’re not, because the rats are much lighter than, for example, dogs, who also do this work, but are — who are heavy enough to set off the explosives, or humans, who are exposing themselves to risk with, you know, handheld mine detectors.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, there are economies of scale to raising trained rats?

SALLY OSBERG: There are indeed, because rats multiply quickly, which is why this solution is scaling, and why it’s gotten to the point that a country like Mozambique has declared itself just this past September mine-free.

PAUL SOLMAN: As I understand it, the movement within development these days is to be able to measure whether or not a project is successful. How do you measure your projects?

SALLY OSBERG: Actually, we rely upon the social entrepreneurs to measure the difference that they are making.

So, a Molly Melching, 7,000 Senegalese villages who have publicly renounced the practice of female genital cutting, that’s evidence. APOPO’s unit of analysis, a cleared square meter of mined land. That’s evidence.

PAUL SOLMAN: But if you’re relying on the social entrepreneurs, and they’re asking you for money, aren’t they going to tell you what you want to hear?

SALLY OSBERG: They don’t. People think there’s no accountability for philanthropy.

But when you’re working with social entrepreneurs, they will tell us when we’re undercapitalizing them, they will tell us when our expectations for measurement or for — for documentation are out of line. They give us feedback no-holds-barred.

PAUL SOLMAN: Is that because they already know they’re doing something so virtuous that they don’t need to be defensive in asking you for more money for it?

SALLY OSBERG: Actually, they understand that there is no argument for philanthropy without what they are doing, without their work on the front lines driving change. And they’re right.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sally Osberg, thank you very much.

SALLY OSBERG: Thank you, Paul.