Current Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA student Patrick Beattie gives his perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘The Great Paradigm Shift’.
At first glance, generic today’s talk on a “Great Paradigm Shift” in front of a full audience in the Nelson Mandela Theatre at the Saïd Business School, view might have seemed better suited for the Oxford Union, Oxford’s famed debate hall. Indeed, it seemed like a debate of public good versus business savvy. On one side of the panel sat Paul Farmer, a tireless global healthcare practitioner known for refusing to entertain hand-wringing discussions of cost-benefit, and Diana Good, head of the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact. On the other side sat Eduarda la Rocque, former Secretary of Finance for the city of Rio de Janeiro, and Michael Porter, the father of 1980’s cut-throat corporate strategy. Of course, like all first takes, this over-simplifies things – Farmer does care about sustainability and maximizing impact; la Rocque is now the president of the Instituto Pereira Passos, supporting social development; and Porter, who let pass the friendly jabs from Farmer and moderator Michael Green regarding Porter’s competitive corporate mindset, was there to present his recent work on the Social Progress Index. Still, a group that could have easily been assumed to hold irreconcilable views on the relative merits of economic and social development showed surprising unity in proclaiming that it is time for economic and social development to share the spotlight when it comes to international and national attention.
Great Paradigm Shift, L-R: Michael Green, Dianna Good, Michael Porter, Paul Farmer, Eduarda La Rocque.
As presented by Porter, the old point-of-view still commonly held is a belief that with economic development comes social development, so one need only focus on economic development and the rest sorts itself out. That belief, which always seemed alien to most of us working in the social space, has proved to be false. In fact, the situation is more complex, with social development affecting economic development and vice versa. And when social development is ignored at the expense of economic development, unstable situations occur. This can be manifested in political instability (as Porter referenced, citing Tunisia pre-Arab Spring) or in sensitivity to disease outbreaks. (Farmer contrasted Sierra Leone and Liberia to Rwanda, where the former countries invested heavily in economic, but not health-related growth and suffered greatly from the inability to effectively respond to health crises.)
With the importance of social progress agreed upon, Porter presented the SPI, an attempt at quantifying social development. This is an obvious step for a business school professor – if it’s important, it needs to be measured, and if it can’t be measured, we can’t take action. There will undoubtedly be disagreement about the SPI and the judgements that go into the numbers. However, it should be remembered that GDP, the stalwart of economic development measurement, is a relatively recent invention that can be calculated in many different ways. In the end, the more important factor here is that the SPI gives us a benchmark. A benchmark, even a mildly imperfect one, provides information that can be publicized and referenced in debates, pushing governments to improve and strive for growth that benefits the economy and society. As la Rocque stated in her talk, “Qualified and Shared Information = Power for Transformation.”
Recognition that social progress needs to balance economic progress for both to be sustainable is a good start, but the question of how to ensure this happens remains. In many ways, that’s the question that the SPI is trying to answer. Sharing the spotlight means balanced awareness and appreciation, and that is only achieved with balanced qualified information. The SPI is a good step towards this. Of course, there are questions that remain. Proving correlation between social and economic development is one thing, but proving causation – that social development can, in fact, lead to improved economic development – is another. Farmer replies, “Who cares?” While I’m not ready to be so cavalier, in a way I agree. The value of social progress to stability is clear, and whether social development leads to economic development or not, social progress needs to be measured so that action can be taken. As Porter said wrapping up his talk, “We can’t leave improving society to chance.”