Skoll World Forum Impressions—The Pluses and Minuses of Celebrity

I attended my six consecutive Skoll World Forum (SWF) last week. As ever, the featured speakers and the audience were extremely impressive and captivating. Every year I feel utterly exhausted by the end, but every year I return again knowing that this remains the key Forum for social entrepreneurship and investment in the world, despite the continued overrepresentation of practitioners from the USA.

Past SWFs have generally been a bit light on social entrepreneur, and heavier on investors—but this has been rectified over the last few years.  Also on the plus side the sessions seemed to flow better the fringe “Oxford Jam” meeting across the street is now a well-established and valued counterpoint to the forum itself.

The most significant impression I have is of inspiring people who grace this conference in considerable number. This year the highlight was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who gave a series of impassioned discussions. Who also could fail to be inspired by the performance artist Peter Gabriel, who sang his hit song about Stephen Biko?. The SWF also introduced the Elders, a gathering of the global “great and good” including Tutu (who chairs the Elders) and Nelson Mandela as well as Jimmy Carter and a host of others.  Such super celebrities undoubtedly have the power to do a great deal of good in the world and their activities were explained.

On the other hand, the misfortunes of another global celebrity hung over the conference. Mohammed Yunus, the social entrepreneur behind the Grameen Bank and the person widely considered to be the father of micro-finance, has been very much in the press these days. He is being investigated in his native country of Bangladesh. I will not go into the details, which are not familiar to me and there are widespread allegations that the case is politically motivated. In fact, there was an appeal at the SWF to speak out and campaign on his behalf. Surely, anything that is motivated by political purposes to denigrate such an important and successful individual is anathema to the spirit of social entrepreneurship and the Forum.

On the other hand, his misfortunes appear to be having a negative impact on the micro-finance sector at large, which is also suffering from a range of different issues, and underscore the risks in celebrity. There is no doubt that Yunus has made an enormous contribution to social enterprise and micro-finance, however the unfortunate consequences of this publicity and his strong identification with the sector are now having adverse consequences.  For the social enterprise and investment sector to thrive on a long-term basis it needs a healthy and robust diversity of voices.

What do you think?

First published in The Social Edge in April 2011

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