Side-stepping the Law of Unintended Consequences

During the days of the Raj, so the story goes, the British Viceroy in India became so concerned about the number of venomous cobras in Delhi that he offered a reward for every cobra skin handed in at the Colonial office. To start with the strategy was a great success with the population of snakes falling dramatically. However realizing there was profit to be made, some enterprising locals began farming cobras in order to claim the reward. As soon as the administration realized this they immediately ended the scheme and the cobra breeders released their snakes into the bush. As a result the population of cobras grew and rather than making the situation better, it made things far worse.

The problem of the unintended consequences that can happen when we try to effect positive change is the subject of a new book published this month. The Business of Doing Good asks why so many social enterprises and charities, seeking to improve lives, fall short -- and even end up harming those they try to help.

It details examples of unintended harm where microfinance clients have reportedly committed suicide as the result of over-indebtedness, the poorest 'untouchables' have inadvertently been overlooked by development projects in India and poor families used their insecticide-treated bed nets to dry fish in the sun.

With public concern about poverty and inequality combining with increasing distrust of charity or government to make a difference, the book offers six insights for charities and social enterprises to improve and not just prove their impact. It argues that just a few small changes to the way that organizations engage with their clients, manage their staff and structure their business model can make a dramatic difference to their impact on the lives of the people they serve.

The Business of Doing Good charts the course of the remarkable and profitable Cambodian social enterprise, AMK, that has improved the lives of almost two million people living in poverty. Based on the journey of this one remarkable institution, the book offers a guide showing how to align an entire organization behind its social value aspirations. It is important reading for anyone interested in what organisations need to do to sustainably improve the well-being of poor families. But it is far more that a practical guide. It is a moral and ethical guide to ensure that those who enter into the lives of poor and vulnerable people do not end up making those people's lives worse instead of better.

Learn more about the book: Website:

Read the Prologue