Rodney Schwartz: honesty is vital to the UK's leadership in social enterprise

Our expertise is sought all over the world - but we must not be arrogant, says our social finance insider

Rodney Schwartz says the UK has learnt a lot about social finance from other countries such as Turkey
Rodney Schwartz says the UK has learnt a lot about social finance from other countries such as Turkey

Sosyal girisimcilik: some of you might have guessed the meaning of the first word, but I suspect few of you will know the second one means "entrepreneurship". It is remarkable that the letter "i" appears five times in a word with only 12 letters – my favourite word as a child was "antidisestablishmentarianism", which also has five "i's", but spreads them over 28 letters.

I learned the phrase last month when I participated in an intensive class for prospective social investors in Turkey, organised by the Sabanci University in Istanbul. It is helping to prepare the Turkish market for an anticipated and much hoped-for boom in social enterprise, investment, finance – and girisimcilik, of course.

We are lucky in the UK to be positioned as a global leader in this field and our expertise is being sought all around the world. My ClearlySo colleagues and I have been asked to offer courses in many locations, as have others in the social finance sector. We should be grateful for this position of leadership and the commercial opportunities that it creates.

But what must be avoided at all costs is arrogance and condescension – frequent elements in other domains where Anglo-Saxon thinking predominates. One of the worst examples is international development, where local reactions to the stereotypical English-speaking intervention goes something like this: "Rich Americans in suits who stay at five-star hotels learn nothing about our culture and history, and remain for just long enough to lecture us insensitively about our problems and how their solutions will solve all the difficulties that we barbarians had been unable to address." This sort of thinking, which is referred to as "Washington consensus and orthodoxy", often does not work, and in many cases – as excellent writers such as the New York University economist William Easterly make painfully clear – does more harm than good.

What we in the UK can try to do is to be candid, honest and humble. Arrogance has no place in such interactions and does not endear the speaker to the audience. I think that we must be open about what happened in Britain to catapult it into a leadership position: there is a great temptation to rewrite history to make our initiatives in social finance appear to be better coordinated and more intelligently designed than they actually were.

Honesty is essential. We need to be transparent about the many mistakes we have made and to give the listener in his or her country the opportunity to make mistakes of their own.

If we do not share ours, then, frankly, countries such as Turkey are at risk of repeating the same mistakes we have made, which would be tragic.

And humility: we need to recognise that we have much to learn from Turkey and other countries – for instance, how the tenets of Islam can be applied to and combined with social finance. Emerging markets have a lot to teach us, as in mobile telephony. Kenya has taught us much about using mobile technology to redesign a payments infrastructure or to share agricultural or weather information. In the meantime, we can also learn brilliant new words such as girisimcilik.

Rodney Schwartz is chief executive of ClearlySo, which helps social entrepreneurs raise capital

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