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Sally Osberg on how social entrepreneurs can punch above their weight

   /   May 21st, 2010International, News

Several years ago, I was at my mother-in-law’s home for a social gathering and I got into a conversation with one of her guests, a woman in her 70s. She asked what I did for work. I told her I had just completed a book. She asked about the title. I said it was called How to Change the World.

She looked skeptical, then said abruptly, ‘And what could someone as young as yourself know about changing the world?’ I explained that the book was a collection of stories of people attacking social problems with energy and creativity — and I gave her a few examples. She was intrigued. Then she said softly, with a note of hopefulness, ‘Do you really think it’s possible to change the world?’

Sally Osberg, the president and CEO of the Skoll Foundation, recently took up this question in a piece written for McKinsey’s What Matters site. [Disclosure: the Skoll Foundation has provided funding support to Dowser.]

There’s much debate today about how, or whether, social entrepreneurs can achieve major social change. Many people look at leading examples in the field — Teach For America or Partners In Health, for example — and conclude that, compared to the problems they are tackling, they’re just drops in the bucket. Looking at revenues alone, they are dwarfed by public companies and governments.

But Osberg shows that the size of an organization and the size of its impact are very different things. And she provides examples — including Partners In Health, International Development Enterprises (India) and mothers2mothers — to demonstrate how organizations can effect changes well beyond what one might expect looking at their budgets alone.

Here’s what she says about Partners In Health (PIH):

Founded by social entrepreneur Paul Farmer and four of his friends in Haiti more than two decades ago, Partners in Health is now the country’s largest health-care provider. Had its 100 doctors, 600 nurses, and 4,000 employees working out of 12 facilities not been on the ground, fully operational and functioning as the spine of Haiti’s healthcare system when the quake hit, there is no doubt that the number of casualties and sheer extent of human suffering would have been far greater and the country’s chances of eventual recovery far less. When asked by journalists and donors just how many lives Partners in Health has saved in Haiti, to say nothing of the additional 12 countries where the organization also works, Paul Farmer defaults to medical shorthand: TNTC, too numerous to count.

Osberg continues by explaining how PIH changed the way the World Health Organization (WHO) treats multidrug-resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), a disease that kills two million people a year. In the early 1990s, the WHO contended that it was impractical (read: too costly) to manage this disease in poor communities. PIH was a small, scrappy organization–Paul Farmer used to steal supplies from Harvard hospitals to take to Haiti–while the WHO was a UN agency with a budget in the billions.

But PIH found the WHO’s position morally unacceptable. So in 1996 it developed a treatment approach for MDR-TB in the shantytowns of Lima, Peru that achieved an 83 percent cure rate, one of the highest ever reported. PIH both shamed and inspired the WHO to follow suit. Tireless efforts on the part of Farmer, Jim Yong Kim and others from PIH led the WHO to adopt the model developed in Peru. As a result, the global goal for the treatment of MDR-TB, which was 16,000 patients in 2006, has been raised to 800,000 by 2016. This will almost cut the global death rate from the disease in half.

For anyone interested in how social entrepreneurs can punch above their weight against massive global problems, the examples that Osberg cites are worth your attention.

2 Responses

  1. Danya says:

    Ha, good to know I’m not the only one who gets that look when i speak of “changing the world”. I suppose it will just come with the territory.

    But it’s a good and valid question, nonetheless, and folks in this sphere – those interested in changemaking, in transforming the way things work on a large scale – should be prepared to back up their idealism with data.

    Thanks, David!

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