The engineer of community enterprise

A specialist in youth and community issues, British civil servant, Colin Ball pioneered youth employment programmes in the UK and was one of the principal thinkers to promote what is now dubbed ‘social enterprise’. He was director of the Commonwealth Foundation, and in particular encouraged governments to understand and appreciate the unique contribution of civil society. British-born, he now lives in Australia

You had an early introduction to the Commonwealth during your time teaching in Malaysia, Ghana and Nigeria. How important was this experience to developing an international perspective?

Colin Ball: Very important. I went to Malaya as an 18-year-old VSO volunteer, without a clue as to what I wanted to do. A year later, I knew I wanted to be a teacher and work overseas. Four years in Ghana followed. It was a rude awakening at first but a wholly positive experience thereafter.

I still keep in touch with former students.

Much of your professional life has been driven by the importance of education and of providing young people with opportunities for the full development of their potential. What should now be done?

My greatest regret about the Commonwealth is that we have been incapable of getting together a decent youth volunteer programme across the association. We need a huge global scheme, because the lack of intercultural and interfaith understanding is now more pressing than ever. New social media has helped transform many things, increasing connectivity and aiding political empowerment. But there is no substitute for the real thing – human contact and personal interaction. Quantitative interaction isn’t the same as global empathy.

You were one of the people to develop the idea of ‘social enterprise’ and build its popularity internationally. Since then, some have attempted to use the approach in their proposals for ‘the third way’ and ‘the big society’. Is this flattery – or a threat?

I think it’s a threat, actually. When John Pearce and I developed the idea, we called it ‘community enterprise’. This difference is more than semantics. It is as though the whole voluntary sector has been re-labelled. Community enterprise is about people themselves engaging in business, creating jobs and wealth; but I think this has been lost in the broader definition. I recoil from the term ‘social entrepreneur’. It is as if we need to adopt business techniques and practices to run voluntary organisations – but is the reality of business really such a good example?

You served in the Commonwealth Foundation in London for some years, latterly as director. What do you see as your principal achievements?

I am proud of a number of things. First, I think I gave the foundation coherence, structure and purpose. There were good people there – but they needed to pull in one direction. Second, I worked well with my board of governors and had a good relationship with the high commissioners. It meant I could pick up the phone and seek their advice and support. Third, I am most proud of bridging the divide between the governmental side of the Commonwealth and the foundation and civil society. In the foundation, we trod too independent a path. But we were partners in a common endeavour and we needed to understand each other and work together.

Do you regret not doing more on some elements of your work?

Of the three defining themes in our work, I think we did reasonably well on democracy and development. But I regret not achieving more on the third part of the triad – diversity. By that I mean practical projects, at the level of people and their development, and learning from each other. If that sort of approach is genuinely reciprocal, there will be mutual benefit. If it is ‘top-down’ and ‘neo-colonial’, it will struggle to show developmental impact.

Since returning to Australia, you have written a novel, Dupuytren’s Contracture, built around a condition from which you yourself suffer. To what extent is the book autobiographical?

There is an autobiographical element there, but not too much. I don’t have a love child in Africa, for example! It is more than a mystery – it springs from my abiding desire to influence people and the way of the world but to do so, in this case, through the medium of fiction. It should be in paperback soon but not with an unpronounceable title, sounding like a medical textbook. That was a mistake. The Man With the Crooked Fingers, perhaps?

As now an observer of the Commonwealth, rather than a participant, how do you view its future at a turbulent time?

I am an optimist. I believe that common-sense will prevail – and that the Commonwealth is fundamentally about common-sense.

Interview by Stuart Mole


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