From Oxford: a look on the bright side of world change

The World

In a world going through an epochal transition to something no-one can foresee, the news is frequently grim and it is easy for a foreign correspondent to become permanently cynical writing about all that is going wrong. 

A day walking around the Skoll World Forum, an annual event held at Oxford University's Said Business School tests this dark outlook to the limit, especially if  you have spent time in post-conflict situations and seen how aid money corrupts in spite of itself and rarely achieves the goals it sets out to accomplish.

The Forum brings together social entrepreneurs, venture capitalists who back them and new media types who help them get their messages out. What challenges the cynic's assumptions is hearing about things - mostly small things - that happen "out there," in the developing world - that make a difference to people's lives.

You hear about, a Swedish technology company, that makes apps to practically help non-profits in the field. Thomas Bjeleman-Pettersson, the entrepreneur behind the company, told me about a mobile phone app that he developed to help researchers on a water project in Liberia. About 20 of them were stationed along a polluted river which is the source of drinking water for a large number of people. At the same time on the same day, the researchers did a variety of measurements of the stream, inputted the info onto the app, then sent the data along to a central computer which collated all the info into a coherent picture of the river. Months of work was reduced to nearly real time reporting.

There is Solar-aid, set up by Anglo-Zimbabwean Steve Andrews, that is bringing solar powered light bulbs to rural Africa, a place where electricity is hard to come by and light at night usually comes from kerosene lamps. Kerosene is expensive and it is polluting.  A light bulb that stores up Africa's plentiful sunshine by day and provides clear light by night is not.

Sustainable Health Enterprises, founded by American Elizabeth Scharpf, deals with women's health in a very specific practical way in Rwanda and other parts of central Africa. Tampons are expensive and difficult to obtain. This means that adolescent girls miss several days a month of school and women miss days of work as they are confined to home when they have their periods.

SHE helped local women set up a business making tampons from locally sourced hemp and leaves(CORRECTION 3/31: Banana fibers, not hemp is what the tampons are made from). The business serves its purpose and helps local women earn money.

Now you get the idea - these are real entrepreneurs in the business of developing programs and products that are profitable but also help people towards improving their lives and a earn a living as well.   Because of this here is perhaps a bit too much MBA speak and aid group jargon spoken at the Forum. The can do spirit is heartening but the journalist in me wants to know more about the "can't do" obstacles the social entrepreneurs face. Most seem to have got rock solid funding in place, what's their secret?

But like I said, cynicism is my occupational hazard, and it is very good to spend time with people who are making individual lives better and seem to be permanently thinking outside the box.