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Archive for April, 2010

So here in California we assemble at the World Forum to understand the global implications of our movement…

The conference started for me on Tuesday as a steering group member to begin the planning of the 2011 conference in Johannesburg.

Organising a national conference in the UK is a big enough job.  International conferences require much more delicate planning.  Coordinating the best time of year for all six continents to converge in one place is almost impossible. Weather, national social enterprise conferences, other conferences, delegate security, sporting events, school holidays, public holidays, to name but a few, all need  to be  taken into consideration.   But hey, we got there in the end.

Today (Thursday) the first full day of the conference began. I was speaking in the main plenary for just over an hour alongside Jim Schorr from the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University, Anne Jamieson of the Toronto Enterprise Fund and Kathleen Martinez, Assistant Secretary for Disability Employment Policy at the US Department of Labor. Comparing the state of social enterprise and its relationship with government was the theme.  Five years ago the UK was told that we were decades behind the US – today we lead the world.

UK delegate after UK delegate came and said just how proud they were to be part of the UK social enterprise movement when they had an opportunity to reflect on the progress we’ve made over the last five years when compared to the US and Canada.

Queues formed to get copies of our manifesto, our survey results and to get more information on the Mark.  Offers flooded in to operate as Social Enterprise Mark franchisees. And civil servants from across the world declared just how much they have to learn from us and were eager for advice and guidance.

I met up with many from the UK nations who have supported SEC tirelessly to get us where we are today.  Our thanks of course go to Antonia from Scottish Social Enterprise Coalition, Gerry Higgins from CEiS, delegates from Ireland, John Bennett the new CEO of Welsh Social Enterprise Coalition and the many others that have helped the movement along the way.

Sometimes you need an international perspective to appreciate just how far we have come, without of course losing sight of still how far we still have to go.

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So here I am in sunny San Francisco for the  Social Enterprise World Forum. It would be easy to whittle on about the undulating streets ( they are indeed steeper than they ever appear in the films or photos)  or I could paint a literary picture of the Atlantic fog obscuring Alcatraz and the Golden gate bridge. All of these things are very striking and on my first afternoon in the city these are the things that I took in.

But over those first four or five hours in this sunny city there was another impression I was forming, something that little by little, like a creeping migraine, was subtly affecting me.

Barbara is 59, though looks well into her 70’s – she wears a sock puppet on her left hand and holds a Starbucks paper cup in her right.

At 2pm, 5pm and 10pm there she was, right outside my hotel offering to raise a smile for whatever donation was offered.

Of course you can find striking inequality in virtually every developed city in the world but Barbara was not alone. There were many, many more people than I had been used to seeing, perhaps 25 or more within 100m of my hotel entrance; many disabled, mostly black, and all I concluded considerably younger than their years suggested.

It made me recall 10 years ago when things weren’t so different in London. There is still much work to be done, but social enterprises and charities working alongside Government and other initiatives are turning that situation around.

I am in no way suggesting that San Francisco or the USA has a unique problem. On the flight over I began a book called “Unequal Britain” by Pat Thane which documents the rise in inequality over the last 60 years in the UK.  The book  damns our own society and is a further call to action for those committed to social justice. However, here in San Francisco, there seems to be a broadly held opinion from those I’ve met that this level of homelessness and street begging is inevitable, unstoppable collateral damage from a free society.

It made me realise that we in the social enterprise movement have our work cut out for us to show people that there is no reason to be accepting of such daily injustices. There are solutions out there to so many things that too many of us view as unfortunate, maybe, but just the way things are.

Too often social enterprise is seen as an interesting adjunct  to the mainstream way of doing business, something on the periphery, a cheap and effective way of fixing market failures. But perhaps the biggest market failure of under-regulated capitalism is the rampaging and increasing inequalities found across the developed and developing world.  At the world forum we’ll be looking at how we move social enterprise from the margins to the mainstream not just nationally but globally too.

The Forum starts  today so I’ll be sure to report back after day one.

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