How to change the World (Book review)

Book Review


How to Change the World

by David Bornstein

Oxford University Press 2004


Review by Edward Harkins February 2004   



This book is a significant contribution towards raising the status of social enterprise across the global domain. The author, David Bornstein, takes a distinct and relatively unusual perspective on social entrepreneurs. The book starts with the statement that “This book is about people who solve social problems on a large scale” (my italics). The second paragraph starts with the statement “The purpose of this book is not to exalt a few men or women but to call attention to the role of a particular type of actor who propels social change”.


Above all it is about those social entrepreneurs who drive through change; massive sustained change. However, this is, as stated, not to exalt these individuals, rather it’s to address what it is that is unique about them and makes achievers. Some of the lessons may not be welcomed by commentators and adherents in the social enterprise sector who are more comfortable with the small-scale; with incremental and local change; and with concepts of collectivism and social capital. For example, Bornstein lists six respects in which he argues that the global growth of recent decades has differed from what went before. He concludes that the outcome is a compelling and increasing need for what he calls ‘citizens organisations’ to be ever more able to ‘demonstrate their efficacy to funders, regulators and their other stakeholders. (These citizens’ organisations are akin to the full range of non-government, not-for-profit organisations). Commitment and good causes are no longer enough.


Bornstein also demonstrates his belief in financial capital and the need to make it when he asserts “Citizens who seek to build organisations need more than freedom; they also need money. There must be surplus wealth in the economy to finance their efforts”. He describes the powerful driver behind the global increase in citizens organisations as being the fact that “During the 20th century the pre-capita incomes in free market economies increased by at least 700%… economic growth was particularly strong during the 1960s and 1970s”. Whilst he does acknowledge the role of other factors such as environmental concerns and communications technologies, it is “Prosperity as cause and effect” he gives all prominence to.


There are recurrent doses of real-politic and the need to cultivate ‘connections’, perhaps combined with the happenstance that John Pearce* refers to. This is illustrated in the chapter ‘A light in my head went on’. It is about the remarkable achievements of Fabio Rosa in bringing affordable electricity to rural Brazil in the 1980s. The story begins when Rosa happens to find out at dinner in his friend’s house that the friend’s father sitting next to him is non other than the recently elected mayor of the rural municipality – and after “a long conversation” Rosa is appointed to the post of Secretary of Agriculture!


The role of the social entrepreneur as driven achiever is well evidenced in the book. The more prickly and recurrent issue of when the individual entrepreneur is no longer good for the organisation is also addressed. For example, the commendable candour of Jeroo Billimoria, founder of Childline in India in 1996, is restated with the quote of her resignation statement in 2002 “I am a lousy administrator and I hate routine and systems. I was bad for the long term sustainable growth of the organisation”. There are maybe readers who will find themselves thinking of some ‘leadership’ individuals who they wish could show similar candour. Unfortunately, such individuals will rarely have the perspicuity also shown by Billimoria when she continued with the statement ‘And most important there was an inner voice which said it was time to go”.


 In the seminal chapter on ‘The Role of the Social Entrepreneur’ Bornstein considers why it is that not only have business entrepreneurs been extensively researched and studied and their talents nurtured by government policies and institutions, but that, in contrast, social entrepreneurs have received little attention. He argues this is not because of a lack of examples. However, he suggests that studies of social entrepreneurs tend to view them as “humanitarians or saints” and consequently “Whilst the stories may inspire they fail to make social entrepreneurs methods comprehensible”.


At a deeper level Bornstein speculates that the differing attitudes towards business and social entrepreneurs may reflect different attitudes about the role of individuals in the business and social arenas. He argues that in the business sector, individuals have long been recognised as engines of change. By contrast, theories of social change have concentrated more on how ideas have changed people than on how people move ideas. In social change theory, ideas take centre stage and people remain in the audience. Bornstein wants us to accept the reality that an idea is like a play; it needs a good producer and a good promoter even it is a masterpiece.


This short review cannot do full justice to the book. For example there are many stories such as the achievements of Erzsebet Szekeres for the disabled in Hungary. Despite the declared aims of Bornstein to avoid exaltation, the sheer profundity and humanism of this woman shines through. Nevertheless, a couple of niggles from the reviewer.  The American-centric mindset of the writer is often too apparent. For example, in the author’s comments on Western involvement in 1980s Indonesia and his afterthoughts on the Twin Towers attack in New York in 2001. And what’s all this about ‘England’? For example, he writes of the ‘English’ army in the Russian Crimea in the 1850s. Hmm… what about the Scottish regiments’ (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) legendary ‘Thin Red Line’ at the battle of Balaclava, in the Crimean War – and the Crimea all being in the context of the Great Game the British Empire played out with the Russians? Mr Bornstein should be told that the British Empire, American colonies included, could not have been without the junior partner that was Scotland. Paradoxically, American’s early rejection of the British Empire was greatly strengthened by Scottish emigrants and descendants. Given the USA’s propensity towards Empire today, the lessons of history should not be forgotten.