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Young, idealistic and unconventional: Can social entrepreneurs change the world?

Published: Friday, May 18 2012 10:23 a.m. MDT

In this March 6, 2012 photo, children run through a taxi rank in the Zandspruit township, north of Johannesburg. Not so long ago banks wouldn't have been concerned about providing services for poor people who want their children educated well. Now banks accross Africa are seeing opportunity in the slums. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

Denis Farrell, AP

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They are smart, driven and business savvy. But a growing number of young people don't want to use their business degrees to follow in Steve Job's footsteps; they want to use entrepreneurship to serve the world's poor.

Business schools are racing to keep up with the trend by establishing stand-alone social enterprise programs, and are turning out more and more enthusiastic do gooders each year, according to MSNBC. Instead of taking jobs at banks, graduates go on to do things like design less expensive ways to develop low-cost water-purification systems and start companies that empower African women to sell their handiwork in boutiques around the world.

"These people are refreshingly uncynical," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks. "Their hip service ethos is setting the moral tone for the age."

But in a recent editorial, Brooks questioned whether social entrepreneurs — for all their good intentions — are missing the mark. Too idealistic, he wrote, they tend to ignore the importance of politics.

"They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it," Brooks wrote. "That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much."

This new "service religion" naively assumes the world can be healed with an influx of compassion and resources, ignoring the necessity of restoring social order through professional policing, honest courts of strict standards of behavior, Brooks argued.

"There’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on," he wrote.

In response to criticism, Ben Powell, founder of Agora Partnerships, a social enterprise investment fund, told Dowser he thinks Brooks' opinion is "symptomatic of a generational divide." Today's young people want to lead lives of significance and they have the communication tools and the education to do so, he said. Their efforts may not solve political problems, but that shouldn't negate their contributions.

“They’re not waiting around," he said. "They’re working outside of the system. And they’re being very successful."

Not all social entrepreneurs avoid dealing with government corruption, either, argued J. Gregory Dees, the professor who created the United States's first college course in social entrepreneurship, in a Dowser editorial.

"They are far from naÏve idealists who avoid harsh political realities," Dees wrote. "They are driven by ideals, yes, but at heart they are hard-nosed pragmatists. Far from ignoring 'corruption, venality, and disorder,' where these are issues, they tackle them directly."

To illustrate his point, Dees pointed to social entrepreneurs like Karen Tse at International Bridges to Justice, who is working to reform corrupt criminal justice systems in China. Transparency International, founded by Peter Eigen, monitors corruption in business and politics. Its index has become the most widely referenced source of information on global corruption.

It is often not enough just to pressure the government, Dees wrote.

"Social entrepreneurs do not discourage political participation — they invent new mechanisms for achieving the public good," he wrote. "It doesn’t matter how much pressure you put on the government to fix a problem if the existing agencies don’t actually know how to fix it."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com TWITTER: elizMstuart

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