The Disconnect between Innovation and International Aid

SOCAP-logo-stackedMark Mullen and Hannah Doress ’88 attended SOCAP ’15 Social Entrepreneurship Conference with free tickets from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship thanks to the generosity of Tim Freundlich. Originally from Texas, Mark graduated from Wesleyan University with a BA in Intellectual History. After working in drought relief in East Africa, he joined the National Democratic Institute in 1993 working mainly on voter education in Malawi and doing other election related work through out East and Southern Africa.  His work brought him from Malawi, to Palestine, to Albania, to Georgia. You can hear more on his weekly podcast, TBLPOD, and read about his experience at SOCAP below:


My professional work has been almost entirely with non-profits. There is a big global system of government funding both for commercial contractors and non-profit organizations to do things they think are a good idea in low and mid-income countries around the world. They might try to promote democracy, economic development, provide humanitarian assistance, and other laudable goals. Plenty of great work gets done within this system, but like any systems, over time it tends to become a bit of a racket. Most of the twenty seven years since I graduated from Wesleyan was spend working within or next to that system. While at Wesleyan, we all spent time and effort trying to understand the deeper causes and effects beneath and inside what was in front of us.

I ended up doing the same with this system and have spent most of the last ten years or more trying to come up with new ways to support change in these countries working around, through, at times with, and at times against this system.

The term social enterprise has become a sort of catch all term to mean many things, but mainly new ways to promote change. Along with promoting that change, they aim to generate some revenue that can be used to promote more change or to keep the effort independent of donors, or to keep it going for a longer time than it might otherwise.

Some are wildly ambitious and aim to completely change various habits we have in politics, economics, or our day to day lives. Others are tiny village based pilots. SOCAP is at its heart an event or venue where people who want to promote positive change but in new ways can talk to each other and share ideas. It’s focus is specifically on new ideas. The system I mentioned above tends to to ignore new ideas or at least isn’t very good at judging their worth, trying the out and digesting them if they work.

I have lived and worked in East Africa, Palestine and particularly in Tbilisi, Georgia (the one near Chechnya not the one near Alabama) and only moved back to the US two years ago I haven’t had much of a chance to understand how these things look from the point of view here in the US. That was my main goal in attending SOCAP, to listen and try to understand what I see as a disconnect between the innovation of Bay Area innovation and how the system of international aid works.

Businesses that ignore new ideas are punished by the market, but with non-profits there is no such mechanism. The Bay Area is a great place to get new ideas. There are so many smart people here focusing on better ways to do things. My interest is how we can better help people in other parts of the world address their own problems, that they themselves have identified. SOCAP is maybe the most concentrated time and place in the world where people display and discuss new ways to to do that. I was very thankful to be able to attend.


Jennifer Roach is the Civic Engagement Fellow in Allbritton for the academic year 2015-2016. She is a recent Wesleyan alumni, class of 2014. Since graduating, she has moved to Hartford to continue developing Summer of Solutions Hartford, an urban farming internship program she worked on during her time at Wesleyan.