Global Policy Forum

Unconventional Solutions

As the world experiences a triple crisis in finance, development and the environment, innovative and unconventional solutions are urgently needed. Yet as new ideas and solutions to society’s problems are explored, one has to be careful not to assume the universal applicability of these solutions. What works in one country or region might not work in another. The histories and cultures of countries are so different that the paths they take are bound to differ. This piece of the spring 2012 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review reminds its reader that solutions for today’s social, economic and environmental problems will and ought to come in different forms. 

By Eric Nee

February 16, 2012

One of the precepts of social innovation is that innovations are created by people who are willing to look at the world in a fresh way and experiment with unconventional solutions. That’s how new ideas such as social entrepreneurship, venture philanthropy, and impact investing have emerged. And that’s how new solutions such as microfinance, benefit corporations, and fair trade commerce have been created.

Yet as we create these new ideas and solutions to society’s problems, we have to be careful not to become too wedded to them and think that they are universally applicable. What works in one country or region might not work in another. This is particularly true when it comes to the differences between Western and Eastern societies, and developing and developed parts of the world. The histories and cultures of countries are often so different that the paths they take are bound to differ. The concept of a social enterprise, for example, will often vary from one country to another. So too will the role that the government plays in providing services such as public education.

There are two articles in the spring 2012 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review that remind us that social innovations will vary around the world. The first of these is our cover story, “The Social Enterprise Emerges in China.” In Western societies the roles of the government, for-profit, and NGO sectors are fairly similar. There is of course some variance from country to country (health care is largely part of the for-profit sector in the United States and the government sector in France). And the roles of the sectors are changing (in the United States the government is becoming more involved in health care). But by and large the roles and boundaries of the sectors are pretty much alike.

In China, however, the sectors are very different from the West. Until the early 1980s, the government (under the control of the Communist Party) controlled all of Chinese society. There were no independent for-profit or NGO sectors. A for-profit and NGO sector is now emerging, but the government continues to play an active role in each. As a result, the concept of a social enterprise has a different meaning in China than it does in the West.

A similar story is unfolding across the developing world, where the course of education is taking a different path from the one it took in the West. In most developed countries, primary and secondary education is considered a basic human right—one that the government is responsible for providing. In large parts of the developing world, however, public education is much more tenuous. As the article “Private Schools for the Poor” explains, most developing countries offer some sort of public education, but the quality and availability is often poor, particularly for lower-class people living in rural areas. And little progress is being made to improve it.

In the face of this problem, NGOs, philanthropists, and entrepreneurs have stepped in to provide private schooling. This approach upsets some observers, who believe government has a responsibility to provide free public education for all. But for many poor families, private education is a better alternative, even if they have to pay for it. It’s yet another reminder that social innovations often come in different forms.


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