Category Archives: Civil Society

The Economist: missing the point, once again…

Shooting Pencils At Target @ JupiterImagesThe Economist reviews this week Forces for Good, a new book about exceptional NGOs, which according to the weekly are too few and rare to be worthy of the illustrious paper’s attention. The authors, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, surveyed thousands of (US) nonprofits, and finally concentrated their attention on a sample of 12, which they believe have achieved the highest levels of impact.

These included America’s Second Harvest, Habitat for Humanity and – much to the Economist’s delight – the notoriously right-wing Heritage Foundation, a proof that this was a “serious piece of research, not the usual sentimental tosh that gets written about left-leaning NGOs” [sic!].

The Economist once again shows its contempt towards the NGO sector and its lack of understanding of its internal diversity. Kicking off with a series of scathing (and unreferenced) remarks about social enterprises, which seem to reduce the debate to a pathetic comparison between the successes of Google and those of the Grameen Bank (apples and oranges, anyone?), it then sings the praises of the 12 selected nonprofits for their excellent achievements (data, anyone?). The fact that social enterprises and nonprofits might not actually be one and the same thing, or that being based (as the 12 selected organisations are) in the US as opposed to Bangladesh might offer considerable advantages to – for example – making the most of market forces does not seem to be a relevant piece of information for the illustrious weekly.

The Economist is not alone in displaying a lack of understanding towards the complexities of the third sector, and of social enterprises in particular. Roger L. Martin & Sally Osberg – echoing Muhammad Yunus – have already made a plea on the pages of the Stanford Social Innovation Review for strengthening the definition of social entrepreneurship [PDF], but definitions are not enough when we are facing the challenges of applying them to different cultural contexts. We might reach an agreement on what a social enterprise might be in the US (therefore what parameters we can adopt to evaluate its success), but this does not mean we can apply this model to the whole world.

Aside from these important theoretical considerations, “where is the social-entrepreneurial equivalent of a for-profit start-up like Google or Microsoft […]? where is the evidence of massive social change?” – asks an irritated Economist.

Kick Start Kenya - oilseed pressThe answer is Kick-Start, a Kenya-based organisation that develops and promotes technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises. As reviewed by the MIT’s Innovations journal, Kick-Start has started 50,000 new businesses, generating $52 million a year in new profits and wages, and is directly responsible for a 0.6% increase of Kenya’s GDP. See a good video by the Schwab Foundation on Kick-Start’s successful water pump here.

Now, can someone at the Economist more interested in facts than in rhetorical preaching let me know if Google can be said to have had a comparatively similar impact on the US economy and on its social needs?

Knowledge Politics Quarterly journal launched

Here come the big, bad ICT4D guys...

With the launch of the first issue of its quarterly journal, Knowledge Politics – the think-tank dedicated to exploring the implications and possibilities of the development of an ‘information society’ – has entered the arena of online academic journals, offering an innovative and open space for reflection and dialogue on how technology (and in particular Information Communication Technologies – ICTs) is affecting the social, political and economic universes. In addition to the journal, KP’s site also offers a number of thematic portals, ranging from Internet Governance and Information Society Theory, to Knowledge Economy and Digital Rights.

Apart from the fact that the journal and the other publications by KP are exploring some truly interesting issues, this post is actually about shameless self-promotion, since one of the published papers (PDF) was written by me. It’s about Web 2.0 and international NGOs, and the political implications of the changes in online knowledge management practices for the operational and advocacy activities of non-governmental agencies. The vignette above neatly summarises the prevailing attitude of NGOs towards Web 2.0 (and ICTs more generally) and their role in development. My position is, of course, rather different…

In true Web 2.0 spirit, comments and feedback – especially from NGO staff – are most welcome!

A fourth sector?

 The Fourth Sector Network (courtesy:

While we’re still struggling to get the third sector officially recognised in most policy circles (the European Commission, for one, has no Directorate General dealing directly with this ever-expanding sector), there are some who are already envisaging the rise of a fourth one:

Over the past few decades, the boundaries between the public (government), private (business), and social (non-profit/non-governmental) sectors have been blurring, while a Fourth Sector of organization has been emerging. The archetypal Fourth Sector model is sometimes referred to as a For-Benefit organization, and the sector itself is also referred to as the For-Benefit Sector. There are a wide variety of other Fourth Sector models and approaches, bearing different names and emphasizing or embodying different aspects of the For-Benefit model.

Here‘s a comprehensive list of what typology of organisation is included in the sympathetic patterns of the fourth sector. The idea has triggered over-excited reviews in the American press, interest from educational circles, and of course the odd glance from the donor community.

Personally, I like the term and its ideal mash-up of exciting initiatives (triple bottom line, Open Source, sustainability, social enterprises, etc.) that are transforming the way the third sector operates. Yet, it is not very clear why an entire new classification is needed, especially for organisations like cooperatives and social enterprises, which have been around for ages.

Are we witnessing the rise of an entirely new sector, or the slow and painful transformation of the old third sector? And if a fourth sector were to emerge, shouldn’t we be more clear about which parts of the third sector are excluded, and why?

nonprofits, teens, and blogs

Below, I am reproducing an extract from a really interesting post on Studio 501c – a blog devoted to exploring ways in which new ICTs can benefit social organisations – on organizations that have sponsored a youth or teen blogging project. Some examples are well known, other new to me and worth investigating. The full post can be accessed here.

“[…] Britt Bravo wrote of one organization that has a blog on which teens post but which, because of safety reasons, prefers not to be publicized widely. Britt also mentioned:

Beth Kanter kindly posted my email query to her blog and suggested these resources:

In response to her post:

Michaela Hackner of World Learning wrote, “We’re in the process of developing strategies for this, starting with our study abroad blogging pilot this fall. We also host a Serbian youth program that we are planning to introduce to Vox.”

Lisa Canter said to “take a look at this dynamic NY youth organization” — (Click on “A Day in the Life.”)

Nick Booth shared, which is “just getting started and is based in a neighbourhood in Birmingham (England).”

Marshall Kirkpatrick shared the resources below and suggested I look at “variations on this query” at (danah boyd’s blog).


nonprofits, nota bene: Michaela’s idea of using Vox for a youth project is a great one. This free platform allows bloggers to create members-only groups called “neighborhoods.” Users can log onto the neighborhood page to see recent posts from all other members. As the Vox site says, “You can choose the privacy level for every post, every picture, every sound clip, every video. Put up posts for the world. Put up posts for just your family. Or just your friends.

Google Earth in defence of Amazon tribe

The Peruvian Amazon Basin - by Sunvil

Via the PSD Blog, here’s a story about how Google Earth has come to the aid of a Brazilian Amazon tribe fighting for its rights against loggers and miners:

[…] “The Amazon rain forest and its indigenous peoples are disappearing rapidly, which has serious consequences both locally and globally,” said Google Earth spokeswoman Megan Quinn. “This project can raise global awareness of the Surui people’s struggle to preserve their land and culture by reaching more than 200 million Google Earth users around the world.” This is not the first time Google Earth has helped environmental or humanitarian causes. Last year, the Mountain View company joined with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to map out destroyed villages in Darfur, with the Jane Goodall Institute to follow chimpanzees in Tanzania, and with the U.N. Environment Program to illustrate 100 areas around the world that have been severely deforested.

In the case of the Amazon, Almir says improved satellite images would not only keep tabs on loggers and miners but would also help strengthen Surui culture by cataloging medicinal plants, hunting grounds, ancestral cemeteries and sacred sites. […]

Read the full article here.

The chicken are revolting!

DIGG revolts - will there be more?

Andrew Chadwick writes on his blog about the recent DIGG rebellion which has stunned many observers:

“An amazing day over at the popular news rating site Digg. In response to participants posting the DRM keys for HD-DVD (recently made widely available on the Internet by hackers), and fellow users ‘digging’ these, the team behind the site started deleting the posts and suspending user accounts. They did this due to a ‘take down’ notice issued by what the Digg blog refers to as ‘the owners of this intellectual property’. This is a body known as the AACS licensing authority. There then ensued a huge increase in the number of postings of the encryption key, and the number of diggs quickly spiralled out of control, reaching more than 50,000 as of this posting. When the company’s founder, Kevin Rose, realised that it was going to prove impossible to delete the posts and suspend even more accounts, essentially destroying the essence of Digg itself, he threw in the towel, and probably settled in for a meeting with the company lawyers“.

As I had a chance to comment on Andrew’s blog, this story fascinates me on two levels. First, it clearly shows the potential of Web 2.0’s collective power, an embodiment of the visionary predictions of Kevin Kelly in Out of Control. I was just as amazed when I came across the story by Evgeny Morozov on how blogs are becoming the new frontier of human rights, which I wrote about a couple of days ago. The idea that anonymous bloggers could act more swiftly and effectively than Amnesty could ever do is both exciting and intriguing. Ethan Zuckerman – of My Heart’s in Accra… – has a really interesting post on the subject and on how cyber-activists have been eluding censorship over the last few years using imaginative tricks.

But second, it echoes a recent article in the FT by James Harkin (reproduced here) on the not-so-pleasant implications of the bee-hive mentality. Harkin misses most of the points of what Web 2.0 is, and seems to care more about the well-being of Murdock and his media empire than about the long-term implications of this structural transformation of the web. Still, he raises important questions about the essence of internet-mobilisaiton and information use in general. Those who took part in this DIGG rebellion were not – after all – really aiming to save political activists from prison, but to get their hands on a Hex code used on all HD DVDs for decoding. As Sean on Life points out,

With the key (and some friendly open source utilities) you can create copied of HD DVDs. This is a pretty big deal as it permits piracy of a format that is supposed to be secure“.

It’s not that I feel sorry for the companies who produce DVDs, but the implications of this event are twofold. First, if when the bee-hive is angry, it has no qualms about breaking regulations, are crowds in the future going to decide what is right and what is wrong, basing their decision on petty economic interests? What does this mean for market regulations? And for redistributive policies? Second: if someone is made to pay for this, it will be DIGG, who might be forced to shut down, just like Napster before it. But every time one site like this gets closed down, 10 spring up from its ashes. What happens when internet regulators decide that the best way to avoid similar attacks on property rights in the future is to prevent them from emerging in the first place?

And the final, crucial question is this: can we harness the power of collective action towards greater social transformations? Or are we stuck in a downward spiral dominanted by the fickle desires and petty interests of American teenagers?

Some excellent hassling tools!

Hassle me!

From the Huffington Post, this is brilliant:

While stumbling through websites upon, my new favorite web discovery service, I indeed stumbled upon a good one – Hassle Me – a shockingly simple tool which nags you via email about things you know you should be doing but which you’ll forget. My initial thought was — annoying. But as I looked down at my endless to do list – for myself, the kids, the dog, the husband, the house, etc. – I quickly reevaluated my thinking – -this is brilliant. Hassle Me was built by two Brits, Chris Lightfoot and Etienne Pollard – as part of, a charitable project which builds websites that give people simple, tangible benefits in the civic and community aspects of their lives. Chris had originally developed a program called Hasselbot, to encourage his developers and volunteers at mysociety to post frequently. Despite the fact that he didn’t think it would really work, it did. And so, Hassle Me was born.

Incidentally, is also brilliant, just the kind of innovative approach to the Internet that can improve people’s lives. They are the people behind TheyWorkForYou (provides a searchable, annotatable version of what is said in Parliament), WriteToThem (the definitive place to contact any of your elected representatives), and PledgeBank (lets users create pledges which say “I’ll do something, but only if 10 other people will do something”).

In fact, hassling seems to be very much their organisational mission…!

Blog-hopping: Pienso (Luego Existo)


Another very interesting discovery, Pienso is an English-speaking blog on ‘development, economics, international business, social enterprise, latin america and more dismal thoughts‘. Tons of links to really interesting sites and blogs and weekly link-drops with tens of articles and occasional editorials, such as these:



Social Enterprise:

International Affairs:


A slightly economistic, pro-private sector and anti-third sector bias, if I spotted correctly, but certainly an informed author. Check him out.Update: on second thought, this guy’s right up my alley. I love almost all his links, now that I’ve checked them properly. Will keep a close eye on his posts.

Bowling with Putnam…

Penguin Bowling? From

Having left my cosy LSE Library corner for my native and cold Lombardy, mainly to do exactly what I have been doing in London for the past 3 months – i.e. bury my head in books about international political economy and political ecology, only without a decent Internet connection – I have to confess I miss not being able to post regularly on this blog. Alas, holidays are a curse we all need to endure, and like everyone else’s mine will be dominated by nosey relatives, with the added bonuses of Wade’s Governing the Market, Amsden’s Asia’s Next Giant and an array of essays and studies on snow leopards in Nepal and wolves in Central Italy.

Still, I have found some time to make a few notes while reading Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, the epic study of the collapse and revival of American community. Admittedly, I didn’t read it all, but enough to appreciate its depth and contribution to our understanding of social capital theory. I noted down a few passages which I reproduce here, especially those relating to Information Technologies, in the firm belief that the Internet will work its magic and spread the ideas far and away…

‘By analogy with notions of physical capital and human capital … the core idea of social capital theory is that social networks have value. Just as a screwdriver (physical capital) or a college education (human capital) can increase productivity (both individual and collective), so too social contacts affect the productivity of individuals and groups’

‘Social capital … can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital’.

‘Computer-mediated communication is, to be sure, more egalitarian, frank, and task-oriented than face-to-face communication. Participants in computer-based groups often come up with a wider range of alternatives However, because of the paucity of social cues and social communication, participants in computer-based groups find it harder to reach consensus and feel less solidarity with one another. They develop a sense of ‘depersonalisation’ and are less satisfied with the group’s accomplishments. Computer-based groups are quicker to reach an intellectual understanding of their shard problems – probably because they are less distracted by ‘extraneous’ social communication – but they are much worse at generating the trust and reciprocity necessary to implement that understanding’.

‘Much of Western political debate for two hundred years has revolved around the trade-offs between liberty and equality. Too much liberty, or at least too much liberty in certain forms, may undermine equality. Too much equality, or at least too much equality in certain forms, may undermine liberty. Less familiar but no less portentous are the trade-offs involving the third value of the triad: is too much fraternity bad for liberty and equality? All good things don’t necessarily go together, so perhaps a single-minded pursuit of social capital might unacceptably infringe on freedom and justice. […]

Is social capital at war with liberty and tolerance? This was and remains the classic liberal objection to community ties: community restricts freedom and encourages intolerance. […] Is social capital at war with equality? Thoughtful radicals have long feared so. Social capital, particularly social capital that bonds us with others like us, often reinforces social stratification. […] Does this logic mean that we must in some fundamental sense choose between community and equality? No. Community and equality are mutually reinforcing, not mutually incompatible’.

A European NE(r)D?

Iraq Elections - Cartoon Stock 

The EU Observer reports today that Washington is pressuring Brussels to create a US-type pro-democracy foundation like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) to accelerate change in ex-Soviet and Middle Eastern states:

“We think it’s high time Europe had the same kind of facility,” senior US diplomat Scott Carpenter told external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner at a Brussels seminar on Thursday (7 December). “If you want the best bang for your buck, the only way to promote civil society in the world is through NGOs,” he said. “We should be pushing them [foreign states], yes, I use the word ‘pushing,’ to encourage them to be more democratic.”

Clearly, the Commission won’t have any of it, given it has been doing pro-Democracy work its own way for years now, yet there are other politicians which seem to endorse this idea, with British Tory MEP Edward McMillan-Scott leading the pack. The way these politicians all assume NGOs can just be set up and used for their own governmental purposes plays straight into the camp of those vociferously claiming that NGOs are none other than Trojan horses for the political interests of the rich and powerful western nations.

Is it just me, or some people some times just don’t get it? Which bit of NON-governmental do they not understand?

Funny thing is, Timothy Garton Ash wasn’t saying something too dissimilar when he suggested the creation of something along the lines of a ‘European Foundation for Freedom’ during his recent LSE lecture, but at least he had the decency of saying it should have nothing to do with the Commission or any other government, to avoid ‘compromising misunderstandings’ when Embassy personnel is caught fidgeting with spying equipment in central Moscow…