Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Power Of The Outraged, Helpless Masses

Now at the CSR Digest web site: one of the few book reviews not for the newspapers.

This was one kind of hard-to-review book, and it kind of shows in my writing. But it was a nice change from the usual stuff I look at.

Thanks to Daniel Chandranayagam for the opportunity to review this book and contribute to CSR Digest, and apologies for holding on to the book for so long. I hope he found it more enjoyable than I did.

The World That Changes The World

first published in the CSR Digest, 24 November 2010

Thanks to modern technology, bad news are delivered with great speed and in huge amounts. We are barraged by "Have you heard?", "OMG!", and of course, "Look at this!", which is often followed by "Spread the word!" or, if you're on Facebook, "Please 'Like' This." So far, over 200,000 Malaysian Facebook users have stated their objection to the latest addition to the KL skyline, and possible white elephant: a 100-storey steel, glass and concrete masterpiece.

As attested by the popularity of such campaigns, the sense of outrage and helplessness engendered by bad news can be a tremendous force. Imagine the things it can help achieve if harnessed.

Media, technology, and social responsibility are just several of the cogs in an even bigger system. The social ecosystem, touted by the Lien Centre for Social Innovation as "The World That Changes The World". It is also the title of the book, which the Centre hopes will explain the environment where corporate social responsibility (CSR), perhaps the most visible aspect of social responsibility, is but a drop in a huge ocean.

The social ecosystem, as the Centre puts it, is "a pulsing, thriving community of very diverse, at times divisive players, all driven by a common mission: to change the world for the better." This ecosystem is populated by those who need help (beneficiaries); those who help (social purpose organisations); and those who help the helpers (capacity builders). The last two include "more than 20,000 international groups", who spend more than the current US debt (US$1.9 trillion) annually, and provide "more than 4.8 million full-time jobs", with the help of the wider community (helpless, outraged people), the media (Facebook), and governments.

In this book, twenty-one thinkers, captains of industry and leaders in their fields from around the world provide their perspectives and insights into the complex social ecosystem, two of whom are also the book's editors: chairman Willie Cheng, and manager Sharifah Mohamed, both from the Centre.

Other contributing authors include Chris Cusano, ASEAN Change Leader for Ashoka: Innovators for the Public; Jonathan S Huggett, Visiting Fellow at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Oxford University; Dr Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation in London; Dr Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International; Dr Thomas Menkhoff from Singapore Management University; and Laurence Lien, CEO of the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre in Singapore, and chairman of the Lien Foundation.

In the first two chapters, the editors introduce us to the concept of the social ecosystem: the components, the forces behind it, and the changes to it that are happening now, or might happen in thefuture. Essays from the other authors describe and discuss aspects of the ecosystem: beneficiaries, social purpose entities, capacity builders, community, government, change enablers and macro-trends. The end result is a collection of essays most likely targeted at the very same players described within. Given the scope of the book and the logistics involved, there's little doubt that it's a serious, exhaustive undertaking.

While the mission to create a holistic, complete, detailed view of the social ecosystem has more or less been achieved, there appears to be no inclination on the authors' part to put all that knowledge and insight in more... accessible terms. The writing is staid, very textbook, perhaps in keeping with the need for a uniform voice across the pages, and to emphasise the gravity of the issues, problems and solutions being discussed.

The numerous endnotes suggest further reading is required. Just as well, since the various topics presented in this book would, perhaps, already have entire treatises of their own, written by others eager to get to the bottom of things. Gastroenterology & Medicine International's Tan Chi Chiu's essay is noteworthy for his inclusion of Abe Maslow's pyramid of needs and a famous John Lennon song to brighten up his extensively researched, and somewhat depressing essay of just how many people out there need help.

There is also a lot of cross-referencing as well. Ashoka founder Bill Drayton mentioned his organisation in the foreword. At one point, Willie Cheng notes that "...Organizations such as the Young Foundation and the Lien Centre for Social Innovation are dedicated to fostering the cause of social innovation."

Bill Drayton is mentioned in IJ Partners' Maximillian Martin's writing on "transformative leaders", as an example of leaders who possess "engineering leadership", together with Bill Gates. These people and organisations may be the closest, credible examples within reach of a stressed, time-starved author, but at first glance, such referencing can be perceived as self-promotion or mutual apple-polishing.

The World That Changes The World is a notable effort by the Centre to piece together a credible primer to the overall social landscape, a world that the rest of us only see in glimpses. However, one wonders what the average layperson would make of it all, if this book was meant for the average layperson to begin with.

The World That Changes The World
How Philanthropy, Innovation and Entrepreneurship are Transforming the Social Ecosystem

edited by Willie Cheng, Sharifah Mohamed
Jossey-Bass (2010)
388 pages
ISBN: 978-0-470-82715-4