Whilst our media and much of the country feels saturated with questions of national identity, the state of the union, autonomy and control, 120 or so Brits took the opportunity to escape our current domestic misery in search of hope and inspiration elsewhere and frankly anywhere would have felt like an upgrade.
Ethiopia is synonymous with many things, yet I suspect that famine remains the thing that most Brits think of when Ethiopia is referenced. It may be an uncomfortable truth, but for many, perhaps even most, famine still frames our thinking of this great nation. But how wrong and foolish are we to allow ourselves to remain stuck with the stereotypes of the past? Weather catastrophe and famine blighted that country well over 30 years ago. Less than half of Ethiopia’s current population was even born back then.
Ethiopia and its capital city Addis Ababa are the beating hearts of the African continent. An ascending economy, that even overshadows China’s growth. A young, increasingly educated and rapidly growing population and a country where foreign investment arrives minute by minute – by cargo ship, aeroplane, or bank wire transfer.
For the first time in the Social Enterprise World Forum’s history, we committed to an emerging economy. Ethiopia was the natural choice, in part because it is home to the African Union and therefore a critical gateway to the whole continent and consequentially has the infrastructure and the progressive environment that the SEWF agenda needs. It was heartening to hear that Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed has just been awarded the Nobel peace prize, even though the current hard-won peace with neighbouring Eritrea remains so very fragile.
Despite being notoriously bureaucratic and difficult to establish a business, Ethiopia and Addis seemed like a natural fit for our movement-building ambitions. Social Enterprise UK has been active across Africa over the last 5 years or so and we’re beginning to see social enterprise spread like a herd of galloping gazelles right across the continent. In recent history we’ve seen Social Enterprise Ghana, Social Enterprise Kenya, Social Enterprise Sudan and Social Enterprise Ethiopia all come to life with vigour, energy, authenticity and ambition. Like so many emerging economies, rapacious, extractive, capitalism has never really been part of the national DNA. Social enterprise models are inherent, deeply rooted within cultures and societal norms and values. Social enterprise, even when not called that, is fundamental to how many people and communities still choose to do business.
But as foreign investment from both East and West floods into Africa, so inevitably (and normally hand in hand), are the extractive and exploitative forms of capitalism required to achieve the lofty profit margins investors, sovereign wealth funds and fund managers have come to expect and demand.
Whilst the context may be different, the conversations held at SEWF were not so different to what I’d hoped to be escaping back in the UK. In Ethiopia and right across the continent big fundamental questions are being asked about who owns what, who should own what, the role and extent of national sovereignty and government, national and cultural identity, foreign investment, social value, inclusive economic development, the SDG’s, carbon and the seemingly unstoppable growth in inequality.
What struck me, is that whilst culture, dress, language and food may also be wonderfully diverse and different, the economic questions being asked all around the world are fundamentally the same, and that is partly because of the inescapable nature of our now globalised economy, where power resides in greater and greater density and concentration in the corporate boardrooms, fund management HQ’s and on the trading floors of our biggest global cities.
And so we come to the response – an army of unimaginably talented and annoyingly young entrepreneurs seizing opportunities, creating networks, developing businesses and interventions that might just slow or even perhaps turn the tide on the economic colonialism, that is limiting Africa’s great potential to determine its own future and avoid the costly mistakes we’ve made in the blind pursuit of outdated economic beliefs.
67 countries, 1500 delegates and attendees coming together in the greatest institution, the UN, to address some of the very biggest challenges and share some of the hardest won successes from right around the globe.
Can we justify these sorts of jaunts in a world of climate chaos? Well, be assured that there was plenty of reflection, thinking and robust discussion about that. We must all make our decisions and justify our own actions, but it certainly felt as is the prize we are working towards does justify the carbon cost. At the board level of SEWF we’ve made the commitment to go bright green, integrating models which don’t just offset our collective carbon, but to adopt a model where we leave a net positive impact and use our position to leave a significant green (and social enterprise) investment in any country we visit, a model that also recognises the inequity in the world and places greater responsibility and cost on the developed rather than the developing world.
This was my last year as board member of the Social Enterprise World Forum, I was a younger man when the journey began and it now feel it’s time to move on to allow greater diversity to drive things further forward. It’s been a 10-year journey, and one that has been frankly remarkable and so-well led by our now MD, Gerry Higgins. There are so many privileges involved in this job, but one of the greatest has to be taking to the skies and seeing this movement grow locally, nationally and globally and to witness its growth and development from a bird’s eye vantage. My friends; It’s a wonderful and hopeful view. Here is to Halifax (nova Scotia not Yorkshire) in 2020.