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The rise and challenges of social entrepreneurship

Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.  

The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.

What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.

The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.

But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:

  1. No one talks about failures

There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.

  1. The passion paradox

Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.

  1. Difficulty accessing supply chains

A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.

  1. Too dependent on government and poor finance

Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.

  1. Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations

Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.

Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.

Social entrepreneurship in supply chains

The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:

  • a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
  • a low understanding of tender processes;
  • and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.

Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:

  • procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
  • the existing regulatory environment;
  • and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.

Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.

Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries

The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.

In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.

What’s next?

The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.

Want to learn more about the interconnected networks within social entrepreneurship and social enterprise? Come along to Tanja’s talk ‘Networks in social entrepreneurship – how to support the sector while mobilising it‘ on Wednesday 17 May, at the Saïd Business School, Oxford.

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Why research matters for social entrepreneurship

Author: Julian Cottee

University social impact centres like the Skoll Centre are contributing to the growth of social entrepreneurship in a number of important ways, examined in a recent report authored by the Bridgespan Group, with the Skoll Foundation and the Skoll Centre. One side of the work of our centres is educational: we raise awareness of social impact with the student body, and equip future professionals and leaders to work in the sector. This work and its future development were explored in an article series curated by the Skoll Centre in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

But besides educating, the other USP of social impact centres is our position at the heart of knowledge-generating research institutions. Bridgespan’s report highlighted two key contributions to come from leveraging our academic connections. First, our ability to convene practitioners and researchers to support learning and innovation; and second, the generation of actionable insights for social entrepreneurs. Two of the report’s key future opportunities for Centres also focused on research: the development of clusters of deep specialist expertise to support the evolution of practice; and the cementing of social impact as a recognised academic field, attracting legitimacy and funding to our efforts in this area.

Academics and social entrepreneurs are not always easy bedfellows. The stereotype is that academics are meticulous, long-term, big-picture thinkers, answering questions driven by curiosity. Entrepreneurs by contrast are risk-takers, impulsive, and focused on specific, immediate needs. There are many exceptions to these rules, but it is also true that academic incentives and the time taken to do in-depth research work make joint working between researchers and practitioners more difficult. And then there is the language of academia, which can be all but indecipherable to non-experts.

It is worthwhile, then, pausing for a moment to consider what there is to be gained by overcoming some of these barriers. We think that the potential is huge for research to further accelerate the impact of social entrepreneurship.

Here are six reasons why we should be doing more to bring these worlds closer together:

  1. Understanding the problem landscape: Research can allow us to gain a deep understanding of the landscape of the challenges we are trying to address – whether the challenge is homelessness in Oxford, or global climate change. Engaging with researchers gives social entrepreneurs the knowledge they need to formulate effective interventions and to think through systemic or unintended impacts.
  2. Understanding the solutions landscape: This is about knowing what has already been tried in tackling the challenges we are addressing: what has worked and what hasn’t. But it is also about the political economy and power dynamics of institutions in the solutions space. Very few ideas are really ‘new’ – building on successes and avoiding past and present failures can be a key to impact.
  3. Ideation and innovation in the impact gap: Researchers are in a brilliant position to be innovators. They can see the landscape of problems and solutions from above and creatively iterate new ideas in the ‘impact gap’. This is not only about innovative products and services, but innovations too in the wider ecosystem of governance, regulation, finance and knowledge.
  4. Assessing the impact of initiatives: Robust and defensible methods are at the core of academic research, allowing the production of credible evaluations of social impact. Such independent assessments are critical for leaders to make evidence-based decisions and can also be a powerful tool in policy advocacy and attracting funding and investment.
  5. Connecting the dots across silos: Researchers are able to spot commonalities and spread ideas across boundaries that might not otherwise be bridged. Through their networks and their public-facing activities, researchers can transport and translate knowledge of successful models across geographies and sectors, or across otherwise poorly connected organisations in the same sector.
  6. A critical birds-eye view: Academics are in a privileged position of being able to see glimpses of the ‘big picture’ that most of us are too buried in our day-to-day tasks to spot. They can help us to reflect on the social entrepreneurship model within the wider global picture, to understand trends, and to ask the hard questions about how well we are really serving the beneficiaries we are working for.

Academic researchers working in many of these important roles gathered for breakfast at the Skoll Centre during Skoll World Forum Week 2017 to discuss how we can do more to bring together research and practice. They were joined by social impact practitioners from a wide range of organisations with clear knowledge needs, keen to find new ways of collaborating. We think that university social impact centres can help to realise the benefits of doing so by connecting partners, catalysing new research, and communicating actionable insights. We invite your participation as we explore further in this area – please get in touch with your ideas and comments.

Sign up to the Skoll Centre’s thought leadership newsletter, which highlights the best social/environmental impact research coming out of the University of Oxford.

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Uniting theory and practice in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem

Author: Andrea Warriner

My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.

Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.

So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.

Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.

Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.

What’s next?

The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work.  We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.

Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.

As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.

Sign up to the Skoll Centre’s thought leadership newsletter, which highlights the best social/environmental impact research coming out of the University of Oxford.

If you’re interested in being added to a Google Group mailing list for individuals who want to forge partnerships between practice and research, drop us an email.

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More in Common

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17, Alex Shapland-Howes, gives his perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “Mobalizing a Movement: More in Common”.

How many articles have you read over the last year about the rise of populist politicians? How Brexit and Trump were caused by a great divide within our societies? How xenophobia so easily becomes the go-to response?

Almost all the articles end with something like “…and we must start acting now to fix this”.

But perhaps the thing that’s been most alarming is the lack of ideas as to how we should go about tackling these issues. Lamenting their existence is an important start – few of us had appreciated the scale of the problem until recently – yet of course without deliberate, concrete actions, it’s hard to see the situation changing.

This week at Skoll World Forum, I heard from an amazing group of people who are founding a new organisation to stimulate the changes they want to see. Led by Gemma Mortensen, Tim Dixon and Brendan Cox, More in Common will focus on five key areas:

  1. Public opinion research

It’s easy to make assumptions about the views of individuals or groups across society, but to make deliberative change successfully, we need to listen very carefully to each other. We often hear, for example, that there’s a divide between liberal cosmopolitans and what could be termed ‘angry nationalists’ in our societies. More In Common’s detailed research has found that whilst that divide very much does exist, roughly half the population have mixed views and don’t fall into either camp.

  1. Communications strategy for key influencers

Getting the messages right is critical to winning this battle. Brendan Cox told the audience that what we often call populism is actually just bigotry and hatred. A huge amount of work is needed to get the balance right between appeasing the dangerous views of some and genuinely listening, acting on the valid concerns of others.

  1. Convening and building broader coalitions

This work is inherently political but to succeed, it has to bring people with it across the normal divides. Organisations that normally wouldn’t take a political stance might do so if everybody was part of it. If More In Common can show that the most hate-filled views aren’t part of the same continuum – that they’re another, far more malevolent force – then they will try to get businesses, civil society, the media and more to stand up against it.

  1. Partnerships

Partnerships will also play a key role. We heard the example of how the Jo Cox Foundation has organised The Great Get Together in partnership with everyone from Oxfam and the Women’s Institute to the Premier League and The Sun. Across the UK, 10 million people are expected to get gather with neighbours on 17-18 June to “be part of a national celebration of what we have in common”. Amazing!

  1. Digital activation

We all know the power of social media. We heard less about this but there are plans to mobilise a ‘base’ of supporters to lead a movement from the bottom up too.

More In Common is new. There was little push back from anyone in the room at Skoll World Forum, few in the room who disagreed and this is arguably the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.

But the group running it are incredible. I was sold.

They are thinking, they seem to be listening and they have concrete plans for what to do next.

It felt like the start of the fight back.

Follow Alex: @alexshsh

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Building Bridges: Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Macarena Hernandez, Skoll Scholar and Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Building Bridges: Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains”.

The task to build bridges to trigger the development of responsible supply chains is not only a task for “bridges builders”, it is a common task. We need to forge common bridges together.

The session kicked off with a “pop-quiz” leading by the session’s moderator, Daniel Viederman, Managing Director at Humanity United. “How many cocoa farmers are around the world?” After guesses and approximations, the right answer was 5 million.

Could you imagine the investment that is needed to audit all of these cocoa farmers have the responsible practices? How many more products a single food industry company have? As Viederman mention, we are not talking about a lineal supply chain, we are talking about a supply web.

The complexity of this supply web has meant that no one takes the responsibility to ensure fair labour conditions within the web. The private sector thought that labour issues needed to be solved by the public sector. Governments have been establishing regulations that encourage big industry players to start solving these issues.

Despite this complexity, companies such as Target and Mars Inc. are taking responsibility and action. In 2015, Target started a partnership with GoodWeave in support of their mission to end child labour in the rug industry. Mars Inc. is partnering with Verité to design simple solution for their suppliers to meet their responsible sourcing standards.

Building Bridges - Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains panel

Building Bridges – Partnerships in Responsible Supply Chains panel

These leading efforts are transforming the unfair labour practices across industries. However, these partnerships and projects are not easily scalable for the various products across different industries. As Marika McCauley Sine, Mars’ Human Rights Director, said, ‘the situation is complex; we need to make it easy. We need to be specific and clear. Make it as simple as possible.’

For me, this simple and scalable solution is called: trust. If enterprises trust in other stakeholders, especially suppliers and suppliers of suppliers, there would be no need for huge investments to develop detailed audits or localised projects throughout the supply chain.

Although, building trust is not easy. How can we trust in others? Transparency, openness, collaboration, accountability, and information flow is needed. Who is creating trust through stakeholders? Talking and listening during the forum, two potential solutions came into my mind. After the panel, I had the opportunity to talk with Charmian Love, Co-Chair and Co-founder of B Lab UK. I realised that the B-Corporation Certification is identifying responsible players around the world. Listening to the session “Data-Driven Models for Change”, I discovered that Provenance is developing digital tools to trace products’ journeys.

Both trust’s mechanisms, mentioned above, include characteristics such as collaboration, data sharing, and transparency. This openness creates and distributes value along all stakeholders. Which make me reflect: Are the main industry players and competitors ready to collaborate between them? Are the innovators ready to share best practices? Are businesses ready to share value, despite the fact that these actions will reduce barriers to entry, increase the number of competitors, and increase consumer power?

I hope they are! In the long term, collaboration will be the key for value creation. My favourite value at Prospera, the Mexican social enterprise where I was working before coming to Oxford, states: “El que comparte, prospera. Siempre.” Translated to English: “The one who shares, thrives. Always.”

Follow Macarena: @macarenahdeo

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We the People: Populism and progress

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Skoll Scholar and MBA Candidate 2016-17, John Kakungulu Walugembe, gives his perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “We the People: Populism and progress“.

We the People: Populism and progess panel

We the People: Populism and progess panel

When President Donald J. Trump announced his intention to seek the Republican party nomination, under the slogan, “Make America Great Again”; many considered this to be one of the many publicity stunts, he had become famous for: The Daily News compared him to a clown, the Trentonian’s headline was: “I am rich”. On the contrary, the Boston Herald cautiously predicted that Trump’s running, would be impactful. Well, in the end, they were right. Contrary to mainstream predictions; he went on to clinch not only the Republican party nomination, but also the Presidency of the sole superpower – the United States of America. How could an individual with no political experience get himself elected using xenophobic and misogynistic tactics? My view is that we should have seen this coming. The rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France in the recent past is well documented. These leaders seek to discredit the establishment by labelling it “corrupt and dishonest” as compared to “regular, hard-working and honest” people. They also tend to appeal to nationalistic sentiments by attributing the challenges faced by “ordinary folks” to “immigrants from other countries” or what they consider to be unfair dealings, by other countries or institutions.

One is compelled to ask several pertinent questions? What explains this surge in populist sentiment across the West? Is this a new phenomenon or history has had precedents? Are there economic explanations for this phenomenon and if so, how should the world respond?  I do not think that there is a single explanation for this rise in “populism”. However, many researchers admit that there is a linkage between the rise of populism and economic inequality, in the west. There is no doubt that globalization, technological advancement and the rise in immigration have led to tangible benefits for humanity, as a whole. However, it appears, they have also led to the disenfranchisement of significant sections of society; who now feel, “ignored and left behind” Rising levels of national prosperity have been accompanied by a growing gap between the “haves and the have-nots”, due to unemployment, redundancy and low wages. The 2008 financial crisis, in particular, led to an explosion of anger among those who felt that the system had been “rigged” to favour Wall Street and the establishment. It is therefore not surprising that populist politicians have tended to exploit and benefit from the economic grievances of the unemployed and working class who have been hit hardest, by the forces of the “market”. Donald Trump has referred to this adverse economic situation, as the “American carnage” in which American factories were shattered, millions of American workers left jobless and “their wealth” redistributed. Anne-Marie Slaughter, the President and CEO of New America cautiously agreed with this position in today’s session, when she talked of the brokenness in America’s infrastructure, campaign financing system and policy framework that may need fixing, if the system is to work for all.

On the other hand, others have attributed this rise in populism to socio-cultural factors. According to this school of thought; the shift in the value system of western societies over the last forty years away from traditional to liberal/secular values, was bound to elicit a backlash. Older citizens in these countries look suspiciously at the left’s liberal agenda, including support for; human rights, immigration, gender equality and LGBT rights. The hosting of refugees, the openness to immigration and the granting of asylum to individuals from volatile and troubled parts of the world, elicited resentment and xenophobia, in this group. Demagogue politicians have therefore exploited these fears to capture power by democratic means; a view shared by Ernesto Zedillo, the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. For example, Nigel Farage and the Vote Leave campaign in the UK promised to cut net migration to under 50,000 and to reinvest the £350m which they claimed the UK sends to Brussels each week, in the National Health Service (NHS). No wonder, in a 2014 press conference, Nigel expressed his discomfort at hearing only foreign languages being spoken by other passengers, on a London train journey. Unfortunately, such racist remarks simply serve to solidify his support base.

It is interesting that populism is not an entirely new phenomenon. History is full of examples of populists who have appealed to popular discontent and gotten elected: From Lajos Kossuth in Hungary, Hitler in Germany, Benito Mussolini in Italy to the more recent examples in Latin America. Perhaps, Latin America, more than any another continent, has had the largest share of populist leaders such as; Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Alvaro Correa in Ecuador, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay and Morales in Bolivia. What lessons can we draw from these countries in tackling populism? I consider their context to be quite different, from the one in the West.

As I close, I wish to be optimistic; by proposing solutions:  First, it is important that there is a recognition, on both sides of this issue that certain things need to change. It is true globalization has been beneficial to humanity, as a whole. However, some sections of society, feel excluded. As such, there is need for better regulation of markets to ensure inclusion of the most vulnerable. National economic growth must translate into prosperity for everyone. Investments in social services and job creation for low skilled workers, is key. As Emma Mortensen, the co-founder of Crisis Action, mentioned in today’s session; we must create a society that works for everyone.  In my opinion, this is where social entrepreneurship can become a game changer. Second, it is important that we listen to each other. The rise of social media, has had the unintended effect of facilitating siloed debate. People choose with whom to interact, based on common interests; and tend to avoid those with whom they disagree. This deficiency can be addressed by facilitating conversations among groups that may be on opposing sides of issues. Finally, we must learn to listen to each other.  As Emily Kasriel, the Head of Editorial Partnerships and Special Projects at the BBC World Service Group advised in her closing remarks; we should look out for people with whom we do not necessarily agree, on issues and listen to them.

John is a Skoll Centre Skoll Scholar on the Oxford MBA programme, he is also the founder of Better-Livelihoods Uganda, a community-based organisation working in rural areas of Uganda to improve the livelihoods of poor and vulnerable people. 

Follow John: @JohnWalugembe