A Culture of Critique for Social Finance?

A Culture of Critique for Social Finance?

Can social innovation tools increase inequality without a critical lens?

Ethnographer and social systems designer Sarah Schulman was recently featured in an article about the lack of a culture of critique in the field of social innovation. She poses an important question: Can social innovation tools run the risk of increasing inequality without a critical lens?

Social finance tools have the potential to be transformative for social service providers, governments, and local communities. Social finance indirectly affects many aspects of our daily lives – everything from childcare provision and recidivism to social purpose businesses. However, discussions about social finance often happen in an echo chamber of investors, policymakers and academics with much financial complexity and technical, sector-specific jargon. What is at stake if social finance only has a limited presence in broader public discourse?

Schulman emphasizes the need for creativity when designing new models of social service provision and the importance of including “unlikely players”. Enthusiasm for social finance tools can be found everywhere from Goldman Sachs to the UK’s children-in-care sector, but the perspectives of social workers, community advocates and activists, social service agencies and the individuals directly affected by social finance (i.e. individuals involved in the criminal justice system) are lacking.

The absence of these perspectives weakens what has the potential to be a healthy and productive culture of critique for the social finance community. Social finance tools aren’t apolitical – they are, and will continue to, shift how social services are funded and delivered in Canada. Community members “on the ground” deserve to have opportunities for input in such an important conversation.

Social Finance: Welfare Reform 2.0?

In November, Frances Westley of SiG delivered the keynote at Nesta UK’s Social Frontiers conference (her presentation is well worth a watch – find it here).  In her speech, Westley traced the history of social innovation and noted its parallels to welfare reform. In addition, Roberto Mageira Unger made a strong case for the integration of social innovation and social movements, insisting that social innovation needs to also engage with political systems. Both speakers suggest that, in some ways, social finance “repackages” welfare state reform by changing the relationship between non-profit service providers, government and the private sector. But does this repackaging have implications for social inequality?

A recent Al Jazeera article similarly noted that charity is not a substitute for social justice. While social finance tools often target important, tried-and-true charitable models (i.e. recidivism, literacy and unemployment programs), they offer limited support to bold, cutting edge interventions that address the root causes of criminality, poverty, marginalization or inequality. Social finance tools are often a different means to a similar end, still relying on traditional charitable frameworks. A productive culture of critique should involve key actors in social justice organizations, too – leaders in the restorative justice, feminist, and anti-poverty movements would have much to add to conversations about how social finance could be used to address social inequality for the long-term rather than simply maintaining the status quo.

Towards a Productive Culture of Critique

Critique doesn’t necessarily have to be obstructive, counter-productive, slow or inefficient. Cultures of critique emerge gradually through environments that foster ongoing debate, creative alternatives, bold ideas, mutual trust and opportunities for reflection. The questions below can help to develop a culture of critique in your organization or workplace to apply a “critical lens” to work on social finance:

  • Which “unlikely players” are absent from these discussions or decision-making processes? What barriers are preventing their participation?
  • How do we intend to measure or identify the unintended consequences of this intervention?
  • Do we meaningfully include service providers and users in this design process? Do we actively try to engage across difference?
  • Will these social finance tools help achieve a more just and equitable society for the long-term?

How do you feel the social finance community can support a stronger culture of critique? What questions should we ask ourselves, more often? Tweet us @socialfinance to continue the discussion!


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