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Rallying cries for Yunus open Skoll World Forum 2011
Outrage at the campaign being waged against Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus burst to the top of the agenda at the opening ceremony of this year’s Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship.
eBay's former president Jeff Skoll, the forum’s founder, drew loud applause as he stepped away from the theme of his opening speech – around collaboration - to commit his support to Yunus.
Skoll said Yunus, one of the founding fathers of microcredit, stood to be removed from his post leading Grameen Bank in a campaign being waged by the Bangladesh government.
‘We at the Skoll Foundation stand firmly behind Yunus and offer our unequivocal support,’ Skoll said.
In a later discussion around microfinance, Roshaneh Zafar, managing director of Pakistan’s Kashf Foundation, also departed from the script to rally support for Yunus.
‘I personally am outraged by what is going on,’ Zafar said. Describing Yunus as ‘a beacon for all of us’, she urged the forum’s 800 delegates gathered in the New Theatre in Oxford: ’We need to support him and be behind him. We need to take some action. We need to have a voice behind him at this moment.’
The cries gave a campaigning edge to the first main session of the eighth world forum, which runs from Wednesday to Friday this week.
Jeff Skoll began his speech by quoting US born and Oxford educated philosopher Theodor Seuss Geisel – better know as Dr Seuss, creator of the children’s fiction series ‘The cat in the hat’.
In one story, Dr Seuss’s quirky feline tells how he has purchased a ‘big bat’ to knock away all his problems: ‘I've bought a big bat. I'm all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me.’
Skoll said social entrepreneurs also carried a ‘big bat’ – but that, just like the sport of cricket, where your bat protects you from being knocked out of the game, saving the world was not just the role of individuals but a team sport.
He said the purpose of the Skoll World Forum was to bring together the team. ‘Even game changing social entrepreneurs cannot do it alone,’ he said.
But he reminded delegates that solving the world’s most intractable problems was a serious business: ‘Unfortunately, what we are doing is not a game.’
Ngaire Woods, professor of International Political Economy at Oxford University, explored the issues around collaboration further in a speech around ‘globalisation, governance and large scale change’.
She set out several areas where multilateral organisations – those working across several nations on shared issues - were learning from social entrepreneurs. But there were some challenges associated with this. For example, when social entrepreneurs and civil society organisations were brought in to help government initiatives, there was a danger they would lose their entrepreneurial edge and become part of the status quo.
In a discussion on microfinance, the efficacy of which has been on trial in the media in recent months, three leading global players debated what had worked, what had gone wrong, and thorny issues such as whether microfinance should be seen as a ‘for profit’ or ‘not for profit’ activity, and the level of financial return that should be required.
Alvaro Rodriguez, chair of Compartamos Banco – the largest microfinance bank in Latin America – and the Kashf Foundation's Zafar, set out their thoughts in a session chaired by Jonathan Lewis, founder and chair of Microcredit Enterprises and a weekly blogger on the US-based web newspaper, the Huffington Post.
Both Rodriguez and Zafar admitted that the microfinance movement had been guilty of over-promising.
Rodriguez said that when one tried to raise funds, ‘you promise the Holy Grail’. He said there was now a backlash: ‘We over-promised and we are being held accountable for it.’
Commenting afterwards, Nigel Kershaw, chair of the Big Issue and CEO of UK-based social finance organisation Big Issue Invest, said the key was to focus on the notion of an ‘appropriate financial return’.
He said the problem with aiming for ‘commercial returns’ in the social investment space was that it sometimes resulted in commercial people ‘ditching’ the all important social value.