Long Now Boston Conversation Series
June 3, 02019, at the Cambridge Innovation Center.
Featuring Eleanor Murphy (Acumen) and Katherine Collins (Putnam, Honeybee Capital)
Synopsis: Some 12,000 years ago, people began cultivating their own food, providing a far more reliable source than nature alone, leading to settled communities and, ultimately, a global civilization. The technologies and capacities for feeding human communities have improved through the millennia, bringing huge benefits to growing populations. Yet poverty and hunger still afflicts much of the world — a tragedy that we can eliminate within decades if we empower communities, through enlightened investment, technology and market solutions, to achieve their own aspirations.
The Improving Baseline
As Eleanor Murphy noted, humans started cultivating and growing their food some 12,000 years ago humans. Cultivation provided a more secure and reliable source of food that the hunter gathers could count on. At first, farming was an individual or family enterprise. Later, people found that, through connections and cooperation with others, they could do much, much better. Organizational structures evolved to create a more efficient and effective use of collective human efforts. Yet the benefits were never evenly distributed, and many, if not most, humans continued to suffer from inadequate and unreliable resources. In the last few centuries, in an environment of much greater overall human wealth and prosperity, charities and philanthropy evolved to help shore up the conditions of the least wealthy. More recently, governments have increasingly recognized their role in improving living conditions for all.
Most recently, in the late 20th century, the collective progress has been remarkable. The scourge of Small Pox was eradicated in 1980. In the last ten years, 750million poor people have been given access, for the first time, to electricity. Technology has enabled global markets for food, through advances in transportation and refrigerated storage, so farmers can share in a broader market. The improvements allow far more people to have the dignity to make their own choices.
The Continuing Tragedy
Nevertheless, half of the world’s population (more than 3 Billion people) lives on less than $3.50 a day. This inequality derives from divisions that reinforce injustice and inequality. Power structures have tended to protect and enhance the benefits to those in power and in many cases have failed to share those benefits with the powerless. But in today’s world of immense prosperity, the answer should not be: Profit OR Charity, Rich OR Poor, Private OR Public, Shareholder OR Stakeholder, Markets OR Philanthropy. Rather than conflict, we need collaboration. It shouldn’t be OR. It should be AND.
This requires a different mindset, one that brings love and respect, as well as dollars and cents, into the equation. Significantly, in a time of cynicism, we need a dose of humility. Eleanor noted that her organization, Acumen, exists at the intersection of charitable investment, local engagement and sustainable development
Katherine Collins reminded the audience of the motto coined by Pete Seeger. When the path forward is fraught: “Don’t run away. Dig in.”
She also quoted the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “If we surrendered to earth’s intelligence, we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
The solution isn’t just about the money; it is also about how it feels when people are helped and work together to accomplish a goal. Charitable investment feels genuinely good because you are doing good, and not just because you think it makes you look good.
The Path to Solutions
Last Mile Health is the best investment Katherine has ever made. The organization is based on the principle that everyone should have access to health care. It followed an evolutionary pathway of discovery from the what, to the how, to the why. It enabled her to think about bold approaches to solving problems with the people in need and to develop models of how the work should be done. How should community health workers be trained, equipped, and paid? How can we develop, scale, and sustain connections and vision? The answer: Love binds it together. It was the key finding from the evolving process of discovery and collaboration.
Investment is a means not an end. Previously, health problems careened from crisis to crisis and global food aid from famine to famine. These can be avoided, but only with a more sustained and systematic approach. Acumen changes the model by starting with deep listening to the local people who are brave enough to see the problem clearly and identify possibilities. The quality of interactions is critical: Acumen practices the principles of greeting people by name, of asking permission, or gently and curiously inquiring about the problem.
Acumen searches for extraordinary entrepreneurs whose businesses are transforming the lives of the poor, and then invests long-term, patient capital and information to support them to scale. Most grants are given at the blueprint stage, where an idea for making a difference is envisioned. Then there is the stage of validating and refining the idea. This takes at-risk capital, which is very scarce for early-stage social enterprise pioneers. Finally, impact funds are invested to support the revised plan as it is taken to scale. There are many lessons that need to be learned along the way.
One example is a company called D-Lite, which sought to address the ubiquitous and problematic use of kerosene for lighting. Kero is a highly flammable liquid used by 90 million people in as a fuel in Africa. Many suffer from burns and noxious fumes, and it is expensive. D-Lite, an Acumen initiative makes small solar panels and battery units with bulbs that provide light at night. It took 12 years, and many mistakes, for D-Lite to reach the stage where it is now, making a significant social impact.
One thing Acumen has learned is the importance of building networks of local entrepreneurs who can help each other. They have begun to build such a network with the Acumen Fellows program. There are presently 540 Acumen Fellows, the first steps towards a broad network of individuals and businesses serving the poor. One Fellow is an individual named Mohamed Ali, who works in the slums of Caracas. He finds children that have been stolen from their families and works with the police to get them returned. He has returned over 400 children to their families, and is part of a growing network of social entrepreneurs. One person may be taking small steps. But it is the aspiration of the Acumen Fellows program that many people taking small steps together will have a huge social impact.
The path to the eradication of poverty in the 21st century rests on simple principles:
Stand with the poor, listen to voices unheard, and recognize potential where others see despair.
Invest as a means, not an end, daring to go where markets have failed and aid has fallen short: make capital work for us, not control us.
Thrive on moral imagination: the humility to see the world as it is, and the audacity to imagine the world as it could be.
Have the ambition to learn at the edge, the wisdom to admit failure, and the courage to start again.
Learn patience and kindness, resilience and grit: a hard-edged hope.
Provide leadership that rejects complacency, breaks through bureaucracy, and challenges corruption: Do what’s right, not what’s easy.
Embrace the radical idea of creating hope in a cynical world and change the way the world tackles poverty by building a world based on dignity.
Eleanor Murphy is Director for East Coast Development with Acumen, a philanthropic investment company founded in 2001. Well-versed in impact investing, poverty alleviation and venture philanthropy as well as wealth management, investment philosophy and estate planning, she is a graduate of Boston University in International Relations and Affairs and earned a Masters in Humanities from NOHA, the Network on Humanitarian Action, at the University College of Dublin.
Katherine Collins is Head of Sustainable Investing at Putnam, Founder of Honeybee Capital Foundation and author of the book, The Nature of Investing. Katherine served as a portfolio manager and head of research at Fidelity and then set out to re-integrate her investment philosophy with the broader world, traveling as a pilgrim and volunteer, earning her MTS degree at Harvard Divinity School, and studying biomimicry. Katherine is also the board chair at Last Mile Health.
See original event announcement here.
Long Now Boston is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is independent from but philosophically aligned with the Long Now Foundation. Long Now Boston provides a forum for discussing, investigating and engaging in issues that have long-term implications for our global cultures. Long Now Boston hosts a monthly Community Conversation series in Cambridge, MA. Please sign up on our website for notices.
Cambridge Innovation Center is an in-kind sponsor of this Long Now Boston conversation. We are very grateful for their support.
Our next Community Conversation, on September 9, 02019, will feature Safi Bahcall, best-selling author, on Long-term Loonshots: The Science of Phase Transitions and the Course of World History.
On October 7, Hyunjun Park, founder and CEO of Catalog DNA, and Nova Spivack, founder of Arch Mission, will talk about Making Small and Thinking Big: DNA Data Storage and the Arch Mission.