The opening plenary at the Skoll World Forum had numerous themes and twitter-perfect quotes, but to me one of the most important threads that ran through the evening was the importance of giving individuals a voice to help themselves out of conflict, abject poverty, and the effects of natural disaster. With speakers from the development, NGO, and medical innovation communities, the audience was encouraged to shift our language of the poor from an aid model of handouts and beneficiaries to thinking about the innovations that poor “clients” and “employees” demand and deserve.

The evening started with a spiritually-moving performance by musician, poet, and anti-apartheid activist Vusi Mahlasela who, according to Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer “sings as a bird does: in total response to being alive.” His lyrical voice floated up and through the stalls of Christopher Wren’s beautiful Sheldonian Theatre and set an optimistic tone for the evening as the audience was reminded of the power of the voice of one man, Nelson Mandela, in ending apartheid in South Africa.

He was soon followed by Lakhdar Brahimi, a Veteran United Nations Envoy and Advisor who has, in his own words, “spent a life amidst conflict.” He conceptualized poverty, injustice, and numerous other societal ills as both the causes and consequences of conflict, emphasizing that when neighbors turn on neighbors it is only out of sheer desperation. As a former peace negotiator in South Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Darfur, he told stories of the importance of both sides having the power and ability to speak to one another and solve their own problems, while acknowledging the importance of an outside intermediary. He also left the podium with uplifting notes, speaking on the incredible kindness, courage, and forgiveness that he has witnessed amidst conflict.

A panel from Camfed, an NGO which funds girl’s education in Africa, followed Brahimi and told stories of how they ensure that their clients have a voice in every step of the process. Camfed’s Executive Director Ann Cotton stressed the importance of language and a shift away from seeing the poor as “passive beneficiaries” groveling for a handout and instead focusing on empowering them as “clients” who need a channel for their demands and preferences. The panel included a young woman who had utilized Camfed’s services for her education, and she spoke with incredible confidence and strength, not dependence or guilt. While some may consider Camfed a more traditional NGO, the awardee of a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship is certainly embraces a progressive philosophy.

Finally, the conversation was turned over to world-renown doctor and social entrepreneur Paul Farmer, who put out a plea for ideas, innovation, and jobs for Haiti, a country that is still in desperation from the January quake. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health, stressed that while Haiti received an outpouring of emergency aid, the country needs innovative solutions to its environmental and social woes, as Sean Stannard-Stockton pointed out on this blog in January.

Haitians need real solutions that can’t be met with immediate donor money. And so, I’ll leave you with one last voice, that of Paul Farmer on behalf of Haiti, calling all innovators and social entrepreneurs to supply the following on his updated “shopping list” to ensure that the country that first stood up to the horrors of slavery has the ability to keep its song alive:

  • Reforestation methods for highly-degraded land
  • Sustainable and affordable ways to provide safe sources of drinking water Disability rights
  • Affordable shelter that can withstand natural disasters
  • Knowledge on reducing the risk of disasters (climate adaptation)
  • Clean cooking methods that don’t pollute or destroy Haiti’s dwindling forest
  • Health Insurance
  • Inclusive Education
  • Support for smallholder farmers and knowledge on high-value and up-market commodities (Technoserve has already pledged its commitment to sustainable mango production)
  • Good jobs (kudos to Samasource for already jumping on this problem)