Review: ‘Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World’

Small Change coverMichael Edwards spent years working for such organizations as Oxfam International, Save the Children, and the World Bank. Before writing Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World, he directed the Ford Foundation’s Governance and Civil Society program. With this knowledge and expertise, Edwards challenges the notion that “philanthrocapitalism,” or market-driven philanthropy, can have deep and transformative value to society.

Many of us are familiar with this form of philanthropy; it’s practiced by Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison. Philanthrocapitalists apply business methods and measures to philanthropy to achieve social change. Success is appraised through some form of measurable return on investment. Recently, philanthrocapitalism has received a lot of warranted attention. The Clinton Global Initiative alone has positively affected the lives of 200 million people in over 150 countries. CGI achieved this success through micro-lending, implementing seed and farm programs, providing treatment for malaria and HIV/AIDS, and creating educational opportunities for the young.

There is no doubt the world is a better place because of this organization and many others. But there are fundamental problems in the world that money cannot solve. Gender and religious oppression, political corruption, regional conflict, and state-sponsored terrorism are some of the deep social issues of our time that can only be solved through collective and persistent civic engagement.

Business approaches are often at odds with those needed for fundamental social change. Business champions competition, individual effort, and short-term results, but these values do not match up to those of nonprofits and civil society. The effectiveness of cooperation and collective action, directed toward solving a deep social issue over a considerable period of time, has a long track record of meaningful change. The great social achievements of the last century — women’s suffrage, passage of civil rights bills, and implementing anti-corruption laws, to name a few — were brought to fruition through collective civil action that took years, sometimes decades.

The danger of philanthrocapitalism is that it diffuses into philanthropy the narrow values of competition, price, profit, and return. It focuses precious resources and people-power on short-term goals, instead of fundamental causes of social unrest.

Edwards presents an argument that is both informative and compelling. I recommend this fast read to anyone interested in the various forms of philanthropy. The book is timely and serves a higher purpose in questioning the extent to which the world should rely on the free market.

Robert Miller is an intern for Foreign Policy In Focus.