You certainly couldn’t accuse the Skoll World Forum of stinting on praise. If there is a dominant approach in this annual celebration of social entrepreneurship, it could be called the culture of accolade. Standing ovations abound, heros are celebrated, achievements cheered and even the passers by are regularly reminded how wonderful, remarkable and downright extraordinary they are. It’s great therapy for anyone who even occasionally succumbs to existential doubt.
If it can seem a little overpowering at times, it seemed clear that for delegates who separately struggle with intractable difficulties and, often in isolation, pit themselves against some of the world’s most horrifying problems, three days at the Skoll World Forum can be a real morale booster. A core ambition of the forum is to empower its participants by connecting them with others engaged in similar enterprises. Deals may be done, for sure, but equally important is the sense of solidarity and shared purpose that the thousands of conversations and encounters deliver. For a time, at least, it offers both inspiration and a measure of inoculation against discouragement and existential doubt.
How to deal with doubt and discouragement was the subtext of the session entitled Deep Leadership: Interior Dimensions of Large Scale Change, featuring the star of the forum, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, along with Paul Farmer, Cecilia Flores-Oebanda and Joe Madiath.
All four have been lifelong rebels: Desmond Tutu is a veteran of the long struggle against apartheid in his native South Africa, Joe Madiath earned his father’s wrath in India at the age of eleven by organising his father’s workers to demand better conditions; he was sent to boarding school and got into trouble there for continuing to organise; Cecilia Flores-Oebanda has suffered imprisonment and death threats in her fight against child-trafficking in the Phillipines, and the US doctor Paul Farmer refused to accept that the poor in Haiti and elsewhere could not receive decent medical care.
But what, they were asked, was the personal price they had paid in missed children’s birthdays, neglect of those closest to them and the high cost of fighting overwhelming odds to defend sometimes unpopular causes? Those who work for change threaten vested interests and often bear the consequences: how did they keep going when the results were uncertain and the cost was high?
For all of them, the fight against injustice and the suffering of others was a cause that, once taken up, they found impossible to abandon. For Paul Farmer, the death of three Haitian friends from different but entirely preventable medical conditions had set him on a course from which he was never to deviate. “It wasn’t the moment I decided to become a doctor,” he said. "It was the moment I realised I couldn’t go back.”
As a child, Joe Madiath was appalled to discover how his grandfather fed his field workers, men whom he considered no better than dogs. “That was the moment I said, this is not right,” he recalled. Desmond Tutu remembered the moment when, as a child, he saw his father humiliated by a young white shop assistant. Cecilia Flores-Oebanda, who was imprisoned under former President Marcos and separated from her first child for five years, insisted that she would find it personally impossible to betray the victims of trafficking.
All admitted to many tears and moments of discouragement. Two of the panelists invoked the divine, two declined to do so. Desmond Tutu and Cecilia Flores-Oebanda relied on religious faith and prayer, though Archbishop Tutu admitted that he often told God off as well; Joe Madiath and Paul Farmer were driven by an equally powerful moral commitment. “When I feel depressed,” said Joe Madiath, “I go to a poor village and spend time with the people there. I come back a new person.” When Paul Farmer feels alone and overwhelmed by suffering, he said, he writes about it. “Explaining suffering is important,” he said. “If there is an explanatory void, dishonest answers come in, in which failure is dismissed or elided.”
Each of the panelists, too, were modest about their achievements. Desmond Tutu said that if he was prominent, it was because he stood on the shoulders of others; Joe Madiath started out with an ambition to change India, but now realised he was just a drop in the bucket. Still, he had no regrets. “I don’t see my life as one of sacrifice,” he said. “I would do it again. I get the most amount of kicks from what I am doing — that’s why I am here.”