Why you should Escape to Southall not South Africa
Abandoning the international development dream to aim for impact at home.
I have spent my whole career working to make society better — from volunteering in South Africa to investing in social start-ups at home.
Here are three lessons I’ve learnt along the way:
It’s pretty easy to kid yourself you’re having an impact… when you’re not
While working as the Head of Operations of a Zambian NGO, I became disconcerted by practices in the development field.
Three moments stick out:
First, while recruiting a new accountant, I noticed that lots of the applicants were entrepreneurs, prepared to abandon their market stall, restaurant or workshop to work for our small outfit. I discovered that the salary we our NGO was offering, which was low compared to government or international NGOs, was 5–10 times bigger than that of a small-scale commercial entrepreneur.
Secondly, I remember having to put an extra line in a budget for t-shirts, that we absolutely did not need, in order to beef up our ‘delivery costs’ to more than 90% of the total budget, as per our European funder’s dictation. Seriously, there must be millions of NGO t-shirts in Africa for this very reason.
Finally, the head of an AIDS NGO in our town once casually introduced me to his girlfriend. Nothing strange about that, apart from the fact that he had introduced me to a different woman, his wife, the week before.
A business model that makes commercial entrepreneurialism (surely the lifeblood of any developing economy) look like a mug’s game, well-meaning philanthropy so paranoid about ‘efficiency’ that it leads to criminal levels of wastage, and the shocking hypocrisy of local NGO leaders… I didn’t want to acknowledge what this all seemed to add up to: the NGO-led development model didn’t work and I was not saving the world. I was wasting my time.
Sometimes the biggest discoveries are in your own backyard
After falling out of love with international development, I did a bit of soul-searching and a healthy dose of unemployment before The Young Foundation offered me a job, running a project for unemployed East Londoners based on the 90s TV series Faking It.
I remember planning a focus group that I was due to facilitate with some young people in a welfare-to-work centre in East Ham when I had a sudden attack of nerves: would I be able to relate to them? It’s embarrassing to admit that was how I was feeling. I had already worked with people dying of AIDS, gay kids and disabled people in Asia and Africa — and yet I was worried about whether I could have a normal conversation with unemployed kids from a poor part of town. In my own country.
Happily, I got over my worries and developed friendships with people from entirely different backgrounds to my own — enriching my own life and teaching me lessons I would never have learnt in Africa. And the project worked. Every single one of the participants got into training or employment within 3 months of completing the 2-week project.
The social sector needs talent
In 2011, I co-wrote Growing Social Ventures, a report looking at the growing field of organisations that invest in, incubate and accelerate social ventures. The field, consisting of hundreds of smart professionals and millions of pounds of investment, was willing the next generation of social ventures to succeed. But where were the big success stories?
The promise of social entrepreneurship is far from being fulfilled in Britain. We need a new generation of talent to take advantage of the huge investment that government is making in social enterprise (in both money and business support).
So, my advice to those who want to make a difference is this: stay here and get stuck in. We need you. You’ll be much better equipped to make a real difference and there will be some profound self-discovery along the way. And if you couple your existing skills with deep insight into social issues, your input will meet a genuine need for tackling in solving Britain’s toughest social problems.