Photo by: Skoll Foundation

Put on the spot with a question about what motivated her father to launch the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Barbara Bush held back tears as she answered.

“My dad is a very faithful man,” the daughter of former U.S. President George W. Bush said during a film screening at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship this week. “For him it was a moral thing. He didn’t think he or the United States could look away.”

Bush explained that while “the love argument” did not work for others, who may be more likely to buy into arguments about how such a health crisis could be destabilizing, she sees those values behind her father’s decision.

Every year, the Skoll Foundation convenes social entrepreneurs and other leaders committed to entrepreneurial approaches to global challenges, in Oxford, U.K. This year, the theme was “Fault Lines: Creating Common Ground.” Setting it apart from previous years, stories of reaching across rifts found their way throughout the sessions.

Last Mile Health co-founder and CEO Raj Panjabi shares insights from his work serving the most remote communities of Liberia.

Capturing public sector opportunities: A guide for social enterprises

Devex, in collaboration with the Skoll Foundation, has produced a special report for social entrepreneurs offering practical insights into working with 18 international donors and development finance institutions actively supporting social enterprises.

Prioritizing the poor, not the project

In a Q&A following the screening of the documentary film Bending the Arc, which follows the story of Partners in Health, co-founders Paul Farmer and Jim Yong Kim called on entrepreneurs to focus less on the needs of their specific enterprises, and more on what is best for the people they serve — even when that may go against the interests of their particular project.

“People come and say, ‘the only reason people are poor is because they haven’t listened to my idea,’” said Kim, now president of the World Bank, to an audience of social entrepreneurs, many of whom look to the founders of Partners in Health as role models. “How many times have some of you said that?”

As Devex reported, Kim also expressed concerns about a growing divide between aspirations and opportunities, explaining that this can result in frustration that can lead to conflict, violence and extremism.

“Friends, there is a better way,” said Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, whose call to action was to move from “a model that is rigged against the majority” to “one that can take advantage of technology, innovation and disruption but that is driven and shaped by human need.”

Check out #skollwf for more from the forum.

Kim called on the social entrepreneurs in the audience to forge new friendships and keep them going over the years — as he and Farmer have done — saying that they are identifying “blind spots,” which others will argue is just how the world is.

“Find friends in this group and support each other because you will be amazed at how many things in 20 years we will look back on and say — how have we done that?” he said. “All of you guys are looking for the blind spots we can see 20 years later.”

Mainstreaming mental health

The need to look beyond physical health and also address mental and emotional needs — both within the global development community itself and among the communities that it serves — was a running theme during this year’s sessions, something that participants agreed wouldn’t have happened just two or three years previously.

One session explored The Wellbeing Project, launched three years ago by a coalition of organizations including the Skoll Foundation, Ashoka, Esalen, the Fetzer Institute and the Synergos Institute. The project focuses on “cultivating a culture of personal and inner wellbeing” among social entrepreneurs, and those working in the development sector more widely, who are at higher risk of premature “burnout,” according to Aaron Pereira, project lead.

Can mindfulness meditation help mitigate aid worker stress?

As aid workers report ever higher levels of burnout, stress, depression and PTSD, here’s a look at a not-so-radical new approach.

“The culture within the field has been oriented towards self-sacrifice and lack of self care. People are reporting they literally felt guilty about taking any time to take care of themselves,” he said. Development organizations also tend to provide fewer resources for self-care compared to corporate or government employers, he added.

It is estimated that mental disorders, including depression, trauma and schizophrenia, account for 13 percent of the global burden of disease, according to Chris Underhill, founder of BasicNeeds, which trains communities to support and treat people with mental illness in the developing world.

Despite this, the field of global mental health is still “misunderstood and underestimated” by development professionals, he said during a session on mental health innovations.

The broadness of the term “mental health” itself reveals how far behind the sector is, according to Sean Mayberry of StrongMinds, which works with women to combat depression in Africa. He said that if we talked about “physical health” in the developing world people would laugh us out of the room.”

Check out #skollwf for more from the forum.

Tackling the global trust deficit

One of the major announcements at the Skoll World Forum was a $100 million commitment by Omidyar Network to “tackle some of the root causes of the global trust deficit,” which the philanthropic investment firm said is eroding democratic principles.

It was announced as part of a discussion on the future of the media, which made up an entire track of programming at the forum. “Our hope is that you’ll leave the forum with new relationships, partnerships and a renewed commitment to a robust global media ecosystem as the backbone of free, open and democratic societies,” the Skoll Foundation wrote about the track.

Debates included whether the problem is really fake news, or rather the decline of trusted media sources, and how to tackle those problems on a global level.

Trust even came up in a session on ending pandemics. Panelists talked about the need to work across borders and across sectors — human, environmental and animal health — to predict and prevent outbreaks.

“The biggest risk is we’re moving away from a sense of collective public good and going back to isolationist [and] more nationalist agendas,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said of the risks that trend poses to global health.

Premal Shah, president of, talks about the importance of networks of trust.

Going from individual projects to impact at scale

A number of organizations focused on community health work got their start with “a hug and a kick in the pants” from Partners in Health, Ari Johnson, co-founder and CEO of Muso, told Devex. He talked about the value of the Skoll World Forum as a chance to come together with entrepreneurs to find ways to partner more effectively. For example, he met with Hope through Health, which is adapting lessons learned from the Muso proactive health care model in Mali to maternal and child health needs in Togo.

One of the terms that came up in a Devex and Skoll Foundation side event on mainstreaming social entrepreneurship in global development was “pilot-itis,” or the inability to move out of pilot stage. On Tuesday, Devex released a report on ways social entrepreneurs can pursue opportunities in the public sector. A takeaway was the importance of intermediaries, from financial institutions to incubators and accelerators, in making donors and entrepreneurs more accessible to one another.

Panelists including Gayle Smith, the former administrator of USAID and CEO of ONE campaign, talked about ways to mainstream social entrepreneurship in global development as part of a move from a proliferation of projects to systems level change.

ONE Campaign CEO Gayle Smith talks with Devex about moving from a proliferation or projects to impact at scale.

That same theme was also reflected in a panel on systems entrepreneurship, where panelists — including Raj Panjabi, the Skoll awardee who started Last Mile Health; Jeffrey Walker, chairman of New Profit; and Ellen Agler, CEO of the END Fund — talked about the need for entrepreneurs to collaborate across sectors, including with governments, nonprofits and businesses.

Systems entrepreneurship requires innovation, research and analysis, communication and awareness, policy change, measurement and integrating the innovation, Walker said. Agler explained how the End Fund was designed “with systems change in mind from the outset” as the glue versus boots on the ground in the battle against neglected tropical diseases.

On Friday, partners came together for a panel called “Pivoting to Scale: What lessons are Emerging from the Innovation Investment Alliance?”

Panelist Andy Narracott of Evidence Action said that “overall, I would describe my scaling journey to date as zig-zaggy,” while Erin Worsham, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University, said that “there’s never a straight line toward scale at impact.”

This year, the agriculture startup Babban Gona became the first for-profit to receive the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. The organization works to boosts incomes of Nigerian farmers and has ambitions to use agriculture to create jobs across the continent. Several attendees told Devex they hope to see the Skoll Foundation work toward another first next year: An award for systems entrepreneurship.

Stay tuned for further coverage of the key debates from the Skoll World Forum on Devex next week and follow #skollwf for more.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the authors

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.
  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.