IPPR interviews Scilla Elworthy

By Sarah E L Stricker, on 22 January 2016

On the 15th of December, the President of IPPR, Alex Heaven had the pleasure of speaking with Scilla Elworthy – 3 times nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the founder of the Oxford Research Group, Peace Direct and the Bee School, the author of Pioneering the Possible, Making Terrorism History (co-author), and Peace and Security Now, previous adviser to Peter Gabriel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sir Richard Branson in setting up ‘The Elders’, chair of the Civil Society sector of the Hanwang Forum in China and a Councillor of the World Future Council among many other things. Scilla and Alex spoke about social entrepreneurship, the power of social media and how to be heard. 

To find out more about Scilla Elworthy check out her website here: www.scillaelworthy.com.


Scilla Photo

AH – So I wanted to start the conversation with a bit of a thorny question. There is a lot of debate about the particular definition of social business, and given that you are an advisor for the DO School in Hamburg, I wanted to know how you would define social business.

SE – Well I’m not an expert on social business, I know a little bit about social entrepreneurship and I wouldn’t define them as the same, I think there is a difference. What I think is special about social entrepreneurs –  those that I’ve worked with, and I can only speak from my own experience – is that they operate in a very new way in terms of their efforts to change the world. In other words, they are not setting out as people might have done, as real amateurs when I started out in the 60’s. Where we were just driven by passion and sometimes fear, anger, all those sort of things. Social entrepreneurs are now far better trained. There are places like to DO School in Hamburg where they can apply, they might be one of 2000 applicants for a place on one of their courses. The one I ran was a peace challenge, where they filtered out 20 successful applicants from all over the world. I challenged them to find a way to locate and make known all the effective local peacebuilders in their country. So it was a case of Pakistan, India, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Burundi and so on. The way they set about it was very methodical, with high use of social media and extraordinary global outreach. What I shared with them was the importance of incorporating self-awareness in anything you do, because if you bring your personal fury into an interaction with, say, a politician or a policy maker, you usually lose out. You have to contain your own anger before you enter into that kind of dialogue if you want it to be successful.

AH – In those sort of projects, how do you go about teaching people how to make it a reality? If someone wants to dedicate their life to that, in terms of say funding, how do you suggest that they approach it?

SE – Well any decent social entrepreneurship training will give you a section on fundraising. Where I think the advantage lies now, for millennials, is that there are so many crowd funding possibilities. Where how quickly you can get yourself started is really up to you and your personality. So I would start with crowd funding, I think that’s the obvious one. Or, you know, running your marathon or whatever, you put yourself on the line in some way. Preferably something more novel than running a marathon. Show your survivability, your determination, your charisma and so forth. Then people will notice you, you will start getting fan mail, messages, being talked about on twitter and so on. You will be able to find out who is interested in you, and if you ask them who they know, who has got disposable cash they would like to invest, then you can start some sort of a share scheme or you can run it as a business or you can run it as a charity, but it takes a bit longer to get registered as a charity.

AH – As you say social media is a huge tool for any change maker these days. However, we are still seeing people who know a lot and have a lot of awareness about what is going on, but it is sometimes difficult to translate all that public care or what seems like public care into action or giving or something more solid. In your experience, have you seen any particular campaigns that have really grasped that social media care and turned it into something more solid?

SE – Yes, two things: authenticity and real stories. So at Peace Direct, which I founded in 2002, what we do is always bring in people from the areas in which they worked. Like Henri Bora Ladyi, who rescues child soldiers in the Congo. He is authentic because he himself was a child solider. And now he goes back into the bush and trades goats, at a price of $5, for a child he can bring back to their family. So that’s a very, very memorable story, everybody remembers that story. Mark Rylance, the star of Bridge of Spies, most recently, did a one man show about Henri on Broadway, so he has in his own way has become a star.

AH – Do you see these things being translated in policies and action further up the chain?

SE – Oh yea, and again it is a question of media. Outstanding politicians have said to me over dinner when I want them to change their policy. They say “fine, run a campaign, make it absolutely unavoidable in the public eye that I have to pay attention to this. Then I can do something”. So the louder you get and the more noise you make, and be careful about the kind of noise you make, the more reason you give to a decent politician, who wants to make change, to say “look I have to do something because there are 1000 people dressed up as sheep running down the street” or whatever.

AH – What do you think about the big, old world institutions like the WTO, IMF, World Bank, UN in supporting these local grassroots entrepreneurs? (… for those at home – that was a yawn!)

SE – I mean, I think they are yesterday.

AH – What about even as a way to fund these smaller projects?

SE – They don’t. Unless you are above $5 million a year turnover, which is quite hard for a charitable start up to get to, they don’t take any notice of you at all. They are not interested in grassroots stuff. For reasons of their own, because they find it too messy. Even the department for international development here in Britain, which has stuck to its guns and given away a lot of money for reconstruction and rehabilitation and so on. But even they say look we can’t deal with smaller outfits that need $100,000 or even $500,000, it’s too messy for us do all the accounting and all the checking up and the due diligence and evaluations and all the things you have to do to be responsible in giving away money. So it’s a question of you putting your passion on the line and you’ll get there.

AH – In terms of international collaboration, we were talking before about social media giving unprecedented access and a global perspective, do you see particular areas of international collaboration that we should be fostering?

SE – Oh yes, I mean it depends on your subject. But yes, I mean your networks need to extend to China, definitely now, Russia, South America. You need to be global on your issue, assuming that it is a global issue. Did I understand your question right?

AH – Yes, well I guess it has 2 parts. What are the ways a global network can help in terms of domestic politics, if you are trying to change something locally, how can you use the global network? Secondly, on particular issues, do you see some issues that need to be more global than they are now? For example labour rights, do we need to have a global system of labour rights?

SE – I’ll take your first question first. Your global reach will be important in the sense that you can get stories about what has worked in other countries and that make people more willing to believe that what you’re proposing can work here. For example de-radicalisation programs. We’ve got a brilliant woman working in north western Pakistan who originally stated when she was 15 getting girls into school in the Swat Valley. Her life has been threatened more or less every day since, and what she is doing now is training teams of young people to go into the Madrasas and identify the men who have been trained as jihadists and then go home with them to their families and talk about why the Qur’an wouldn’t want them to do that. She is now in contact with about 2000 young potential jihadists. Now that is powerful work. So if you can relate what you are suggesting to something that has worked elsewhere and that could be applied in this country then that adds credibility.

(To the second question) Sure, well definitely. I think that is happening far more than it used to. And I’m thinking of women’s rights and issues like rape as a weapon of war and so on, that’s becoming much more internationally recognised.

AH – And on that, have you seen any particularly amazing women’s rights campaigns around the world?

SE – Yes, well I think One Billion Rising is good. It was brilliantly animated with music and dance and so forth and huge amounts of energy. Eve Ensler, who started it, who did the Vagina Monologues, she is not afraid of saying anything (AH – you wouldn’t be after that, SE – No!), so I think, be outspoken, don’t necessarily be angry, but be really clearly outspoken. Get your message into a very short statement and try it out on all your friends and see if it works with them and back it up with a short story of how this works. And that’s the sort of short cut to getting through, rather than writing a 13,000 word essay.

AH – There’s a real lack on engagement of men on women’s issues. Do you think we should be engaging with men more on women’s issues?

SE – The field that I know that I can talk about is in peace building. Before we started Peace Direct we analysed 350 different locally led peace initiatives, in hot conflict areas around the world and we isolated the 50 most effective of them, and wrote them up in a book called War Prevention Works. And of those, the ones that were women led or largely women run were the most durable and the most cost effective in the long run. So women are exceptionally good at all the sort of key but unglamorous bits of peace building like bridge building, confidence building between religious minorities, rediscovering weapons dumps and things like that. Brokering local agreements showing that they can do it, you know agreements between clans in north eastern Kenya and so forth. There are 1000’s of examples of how brilliantly women do it. There have been some very good academic studies, there hasn’t been a good popular book, except, a book by Nicholas Kristof and his partner (Sheryl WuDunn) called Half The Sky, which is wonderful.

AH – What role do you think young people have in this space?  We are seeing lots of international issues or previously “charity issues” being brought together, labour rights, the environment, women’s rights, what role do you see business taking in these issues?

SE – I think business has got to be really held to account by their younger employees. In other words, as I understand it now, given the surveys that have been done by Deloitte, KPMG and Goldman Sachs who have all established that a majority of millennials have 3 priorities before their own personal profit. That is people, planet and purpose. So, assuming that’s the case, those that are thinking about what companies to apply to join, and they will be sought after if they come from a good university like this one, can establish the conditions. They can say “what is your CSR policy and is it real or is it just on paper? What are you doing and XYZ issues that concern this business?” You can always look up a good example like Unilever and see what the company you’re thinking of applying to is doing compared to them. Lay out your conditions, that’s going to make them sit up and think. Even if you don’t accept that appointment or vacancy, you will have made your mark just in the interview. Because the more candidates that speak out about these things, the more that it will go straight up to the top and give more sleepless nights to CEOs. I mean, you have a huge advantage now that you have never had before, largely because of social media, because you can spread the word if a company isn’t behaving as you would like it to behave. Now you’ve got campaign like Avaaz which are superb, and full of integrity. I’ve checked them out thoroughly. They run really effective campaigns and they use humour and they use all sorts of very, very good methods of getting change to happen.

AH – I really appreciate their multi-pronged approach. Right from grassroots stuff to meeting with politicians.

SE – Yes, and the other thing I’d like to say is that dialogue is really important. I mean, demonstrations in the street are important and certainly petitions have a certain importance, but I set a lot of store by actually finding out who has a yes or no on a decision that you are interested in and writing a very well informed letter to that person. Say, I’d like to come and see you with my 2 colleagues from UCL or wherever and I’d like it to be in the 3rd week of December or whenever it is – be very precise about what you would like to talk about – and offer that person something that you will bring to the conversation, that you’re not just going to bend their ear, but that there is going to be something in it for them. And by writing a well-informed letter you show them you are not going to be wasting their time. That they could learn something from you. And I think that dialogue approach is massively effective and you never know. We ran a huge campaign in the 80s to match up locally led peace groups, whether they were women’s groups or Quaker groups or whatever, with individual decision makers both here and in China. And their job was to learn enough about that person’s responsibility to write them a really well informed letter and ask for a meeting. That campaign had a huge effect. They still talk about it now.

AH – Thank you very much Scilla. If you would like to hear more about Scilla Elworthy and her work you can visit her website on scillaelworthy.com.