Why business can be good at solving social problems, but it’s still not enough.

I’m going to post a TED talk, have some issues with the TED talk, then get in a huff and dismiss all TED talks. You have been warned.

Michael Porter, in the video above, lays out his case for why business can solve social problems. He sees the lack of solutions to the worlds ills as lying in the inability of solutions to achieve scale and a lack of resources for implementing solutions. He attempts to explode the myth that business causes social problems whilst showing that magical profit can cure social problems.

It’s an appealing argument. But ultimately I found it frustrating, as it treated the rich world’s social problems as the world’s social problems. Maybe I need to get some perspective but most of the social problems he discussed seemed innocuous in relation to Sub-Saharan Africa. And many of the social problems in Africa are not problems of scale and resources. Most social problems in Africa are not going to be solved by business. They can’t be solved by business because business can’t function effectively in much of Africa for a multitude of reasons.

Porter’s solutions only work in an ‘end of history’ history world where everyone is in agreement that liberal democracy with lashings of capitalism is the only form of government. Unfortunately not many African leaders have read Fukuyama and their countries are working in completely different systems. I can’t discredit Porter for his argument though, I doubt he is attempting to map out a global solution. It’s a problem of the form of a TED talk.

TED talks are plagued with oversimplification and big ideas that don’t transfer to a nuanced world.They dismiss the complexity of the systems that we are embedded in. You can see Porter in the above talk striving with all his might to get that ah-ha moment out of his audience. He desperately wants the over simplistic message of ‘business can solve social problems’ to click and stick with his audience. This is not simply simplistic, it is dangerous. For all those people who swallow the simple pill, they now have an out from taking an interest in the social problems of the developing world. They don’t need to get outraged at the gross inequality in the world. They know the solution. They saw it on a TED talk.

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