Thursday, April 15, 2010

Call to Arms

Public health activist and social entrepreneur Paul Farmer is urging fellow social innovators attending the Skoll World Forum in Oxford this week to do more for Haiti as it moves into the rainy season, when "people in shelters on seaside slopes will be hit hard by acres of mud and waste."

"There are still hundreds of thousands of people packed into tent cities and public parks," Farmer said in opening remarks at the Forum, which convened here Wednesday night and runs through Friday. Farmer, whose public health work in Haiti was famously profiled in the 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, expressed concern about rising tensions in the camps, saying Haitians are "at the breaking point...Government and the international humanitarian community must do something to prevent an outbreak of mental illness among people who have gone without now for so long."

Farmer called on the nearly 750 social entrepreneurs attending the conference from around the world to turn their attention more fully to Haiti, and to help him brainstorm new ways to bring collaboration around aid to the nation in crisis. He urged conferees to devise innovative new ways to provide victims of Haiti's January earthquake with better shelter, land reforestation aid, safer drinking water, disability rights for those maimed by quake-related injuries, a new system of education -- especially one for girls -- and the creation of local environmental industry that will create alternative energy sources and green jobs.

Showing conferees photos taken three days ago by people who work for Partners in Health, Farmer's organization in Haiti, Farmer said "the international community has failed" to help Haitians well. "None of us deserve high marks for distributing food, water and shelter to people who needed it yesterday," he said.

In other highlights from Wednesday night's evening opener:

* Colin Mayer, the Dean of Oxford University's Said Business School, the venue of the Skoll conference, said that the new field of social entrepreneurship has "finally come of age," fueled by "deep-rooted skepticism" by the public and leaders of traditional institutions over "business-as-usual, which has valued cost-cutting above caring." Meyer added: "There is a widely-held belief that our institutions have failed us. We no longer trust them to do what they are supposed to be doing, much less what we would like them to do." Against that backdrop, Meyer said, the social entrepreneurship movement "is gaining momentum around the world."

* Jeff Skoll, the CEO and founder of the Skoll Foundation, said that in the seven years he has been hosting the conference, social entrepreneurship has gone from "a curiosity to a force." It is time now, he said, for the field to start collaborating more widely with groups also working broadly for social change, including governments and aid agencies. Added Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford: "While Skoll continues to celebrate social entrepreneurs, unless we can create a movement with our efforts, the impact we will have will be limited."

The Forum continues through Friday. Watch this space for more highlights.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by

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