To avoid becoming depressed by the malevolence of the Trump administration, it helps to cultivate a long-term and global perspective. Last week’s Skoll World Forum offered both, and a bit of fun, too. Spend time at Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and you’re reminded that Britain has endured much worse that Trump. Listen to people who work to curb disease, alleviate poverty and improve schools in Africa or India, and you remember that the world is getting healthier, wealthier and better educated. Breathe deep; this, too, shall past.
The Skoll forum is intended, among other things, to celebrate social entrepreneurs, a term so broad as to almost become meaningless. They are, in essence, leaders of nonprofit or for-profit organizations of the teach-a-man-to-fish variety that attack big problems that business or government have failed to solve.
Skoll gatherings attract A-listers, and this year was no exception. There’s economic power: World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, billionaire yogurt mogul Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani and Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker. Star power: Bono, the Eagles’ Don Henley and actress Julia Ormond of anti-slavery Asset Campaign. And, of course, legions of well-known do-gooders, people like Paul Farmer of Partners in Health and Dr. Atul Gawande, the author and founder of nonprofit Ariadne Labs.
This was my first Skoll powwow. I moderated a panel about philanthropy, wrote a story [paywall] about the event for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, and came home with these impressions after three jam-packed days amidst 1,200 madly-networking folk:
The benefactor: Jeff Skoll made a few billion dollars in just four years at eBay in the late 1990s–ah, the good old days of the dot.com boom–and he has been investing it and giving it away ever since. A signatory of The Giving Pledge, Skoll oversees a portfolio of values-based enterprises, including the Skoll Foundation, which organizes the annual forum and supports social entrepreneurs; the Capricorn Investment Group, which invests in businesses that aim to solve pressing global problems; and Participant Media, an entertainment company that has produced dozens of cause-oriented films, including An Inconvenient Truth, Oscar-winner Spotlight and, most recently, Bending the Arc, about the work of Partners In Health. All in all, it’s a very impressive track record.
Skoll, who is 52, was a visible, albeit socially-awkward, presence all week. On stage, he interviewed Jim Yong Kim about finance and chatted about global poverty with Bono. (Bono compared him to Columbo, the disheveled and unassuming 1970s TV detective, and that seemed right.) Skoll has endeared himself to his foundation’s Skoll Award winners by giving them three years of unrestricted funding — now $1.25 million — to spend on scaling their work. This year’s winners were Babban Gona, which helps smallholder farmers in Nigeria; Build Change, which promotes disaster-resistant construction in poor countries; Last Mile Health, which deploys community health workers in Liberia; and Polaris, which uses data to disrupt human trafficking networks.
Health care, delivered: In Liberia, the challenge of providing health care to the poor is compounded by what Dr. Raj Panjabi, the founder of Last Mile Health, described as “the tyranny of distance.” A child who becomes sick or a mother about to delivery a baby might need days to get to the nearest health clinic or hospital. There’s no way, in the foreseeable future, to build enough facilities or train enough doctors to serve the 4 million people in Liberia, which has 51 doctors, according to Panjabi.
“Illness is universal, and access to care is not,” Panjabi said. “That doesn’t have to be true.”
Last Mile Health works with the Liberian government to train, equip, pay and supervise community health workers to reach even the most remote communities. To those of us old enough to remember when doctors made house calls, this isn’t a new concept. But it’s a life-changing development for the world’s rural poor, and it’s evidently possible now because of cheap, portable medical technology. The community health workers are connected to medical professionals by mobile phones.
It’s no accident that Last Mile Health launched in Liberia. Panjabi, whose parents were born in India and migrated to Liberia, was forced to flee the country at age nine by civil war; he was stuffed in the cargo hatch of a rescue plane with his mother and sister, after which they rebuilt their lives in the U.S.
Oxfam’s misleading inequality numbers: One peculiarity of nonprofit world is the scorn that NGO leaders have for business, the source of wealth that makes nonprofits possible. A case in point is Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, who delivered a stinging critique of capitalism from the Skoll stage, calling for a “different economic model…that is driven and shaped by human need,” whatever that means. If by that she means that governments need to provide a safety net, well, sure, but that’s a problem of politics, not of capitalism.
Byanyima then repeated one of Oxfam’s many, oft-cited claims about global inequality. “Eight men now own as much wealth as half of humanity,” she said. This is literally true, but it’s misleading because of the way Oxfam defines wealth, as the writer Felix Salmon has pointed out repeatedly, most recently here.
“ff you use Oxfam’s methodology,” Salmon writes, “my niece, with 50 cents in pocket money, has more wealth than the bottom 40% of the world’s population combined. As do I, and as do you, most likely, assuming your net worth is positive. You don’t need to find eight super-wealthy billionaires to arrive at a shocking wealth statistic; you can take just about anybody.”
What’s more, four of the world’s wealthiest eight billionaires — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Ellison — have signed the Giving Pledge, promising to give away more than half of their wealth. More important, global inequality is falling, not rising, largely because of the spread of capitalism.
Power, privilege and class: Pleasant as it was to forget about Trump for a while, there was surprisingly little talk of politics or policy at Skoll — and even less of power, privilege or class, at least within my earshot — which is odd, since the event is about driving social change.
One exception was Bono, who described the ONE campaign as an “NRA [National Rifle Association] for the poor.” ONE, he said, aims to influence Washington insiders and mobilize a base of activists. “It’s really social movements that change the world, not individual people,” he said.
Another was Darren Walker, the charismatic Ford Foundation president who talked about the need to “interrogate” privilege. “Privilege doesn’t actually like change. Privileged institutions and privileged people don’t really want to get uncomfortable,” Walker said. “We don’t have to. We’re privileged.”
Still another was Michael Porter, the Harvard Business School professor who gave a long but bizarre presentation about the problems with U.S. democracy. He sounded as if he had never thought about politics before, which, perhaps, he hasn’t. “What we’re seeing is sometimes called gridlock,” Porter said, as if hearing the word for the first time. He concluded: “We must engage in politics if we are going to achieve our goal, which is to advance society.” My high school civics teacher would surely agree.
Of course they’re both right: Politics matters. Idealistic, world-changing social entrepreneurs are wonderful and they deserve to be celebrated, even if there was a bit too much back-patting at Skoll for my taste. But, while dining, drinking and even dancing amidst the spires of Oxford, let’s not forget that elites acting on their own don’t change the world. People do. As we were all reminded last November.