I just received a Facebook message from Maria, a current KaosPilot – but not for long. She is leaving partway through her education because she just cannot afford it any longer. Earlier today I received an email from Zulma, who has told me how difficult it was for her – no sponsors, no scholarships, nothing.

The stories I hear from the non-Scandinavian KaosPilots are mostly similar. Denied access to Government scholarship funds, they have to rely on all sorts of means to afford being a KaosPilot. Some, like Sky, luck out by having a family member sponsor them. (My dad said that he’d pay for me if I finish my degree. Even if that happens, I highly doubt he’d agree when he sees the price tage. And he’s paid for big things in the past.) Most, though, jump through all sorts of hoops just to survive. Corporate sponsorships and other typical fundraising activity is rare, basically non-existent; most of them end up working multitudes of jobs and living on next to nothing.

Maria hasn’t told me her entire story yet, but already it’s gotten me anxious and a little upset. Because it’s highly indicative of a big issue that plagues about 3/4 of the world, particularly those in those areas who want to make a difference.

I had a semi-argument with an acquaintance on LiveJournal (hello predream, sorry I don’t quite know your name) over the GK3 conference and the BrainStore ideas presented at the end. He thought the ideas were half-baked and that no one in GK3 knew anything about entrepreneurship; when I pointed out that most of the ideas came from 100 young social entrepreneurs, he argued that they weren’t “real entrepreneurs”. I don’t know what sort of nonsense definition of “real entrepreneur” he’s using – you couldn’t avoid entrepreneurs of every shade at GK3 even if you hid under a table. He thought everyone there was of some privileged background, able to spend US$500 on some random conference ticket. Actually it cost less then that, and for the young delegates (at least), it was all expenses paid, so not everyone came from a position of wealth and privilege.

But in the larger scheme of things, he’s not off the mark.

There are a lot of resources available to deal with making a difference through ideas, through business, through social avenues. There is NO END to the conferences that happen every year around this theme – TED, Pop!Tech, LIFT, Reboot (incidentally in Denmark), IdeaFestival, IdeaCity, anything with the word “Idea” or “Tech” or something related in it. Besides the KaosPilots, there are other schools and organizations with a similar educational model – HyperIsland in Sweden, EdgeWare in Australia. Blogs can’t stop talking about it. People are making money as consultants. Magazines like Ode, Fast Company, and GOOD devote pages and whole editions on these topics.

They all proclaim to bring the “best minds in the world” together to make a difference, to create change, to inspire and get inspired. People clamour to even get a ticket or a pass or something. Waiting lists are long. Yet look at the attendee photos at these conferences. Look at the countries publishing those magazines. Look at the bulk of the students that are gaining such an education. 90% of them are Western, of a first-world country. 90% of that are white.

Where are all the other countries? Where are the Asians, Africans, South Americans, indigenous folk? Why don’t you have a TED in Thailand, or a special feature about Africa that’s more than just “oh look at the poor starving people”? (Vanity Fair’s special issue was quite good, but tended to go on the “oh poor brown people” angle.) Where are all the international students? Hell, why are most of the conference-goers older people?

Simple. They’re being held back by one thing:

Money.

It’s not that they don’t want to get involved. From what I saw of the young social entrepreneurs at GK3, the ones from downtrodden countries were extremely passionate and dedicated and did everything they could to make their communities better and more sustainable. They had enough fire to get them through any setback. You don’t even have to spend any effort motivating them – they’re already motivated to action!

But how much does a ticket to such a conference cost? Close to predream’s estimate of US$500. If you want a full course, expect at least US$5000 in tuition a year – JUST tuition. Yes, that’s pretty cheap as far as universities go, but factor in living costs and you’ve got a big burden, especially if you come from a place where your money doesn’t go very far elsewhere. Then you have to fly out there, find your accommodation, figure out your visa (if you’re lucky to even get one, what with all the limitations they put on you)…sheesh! The thought is enough to make you go crazy. I was just at NOTCOT‘s blog and they’ve got a full schedule of conferences planned for 2008, and they’re still soliciting suggestions for more. These are about 5 conferences a MONTH – 60 in the YEAR. We’d be lucky to afford just one. As for magazines? US$50 for a year to GOOD – and my subscription hasn’t even showed up yet. That’s if they allow non-US subscriptions, of course.

“Oh, you could just fundraise!” they all say. “Write a letter!” Easy to say. If you’re not the right citizenship or the right stock or whatever, your chances are slim to none. Note that none of the international students in the KaosPilots (that I’ve spoken to anyway) are sponsored by a corporation. If my plans succeed I’d set a precedent. But my chances are pretty slim too, mainly because no one in Malaysia and hardly anyone in Australia has heard of the KaosPilots and (as far as Malaysia goes) are pretty recitent to fund anything that’s not Harvard. Arguing that it’s on the same list as Harvard possibly won’t make a difference. It reminds me of the fundraising panel I attended in GK3 – one panelist suggested fundraising from the community, and one African delegate argued that his own community didn’t have enough money for themselves – how are they going to spare money for him?

Even if you could pay for it, by the time you actually hear about it, all the spaces are full. TED’s 2008 conference was fully booked before the New Year. How are the people in non-Western countries, who don’t get to hear about such things in the news and who may not necessarily have regular Internet access, ever going to know that such an opportunity exists?

Heck, it’s not just a “third-world” thing too. One of the young social entrepreneurs I met was Liam, who runds Avoid.Net, a website that keeps corporates accountable for their actions. He told me that if it wasn’t for the full scholarship provided by GKP, he’d never make it out of the country. And he’s from Canada – hardly an impoverished nation. Notice how there are hardly any young people in those big idea conferences, and how very little are youth-oriented.

If you’re going to claim to bring the best of the world together, if you want to make a major difference in the world, if you want the world to care about sustainability, if you want to bring social change to the world, then involve the whole world! Don’t put artificial barriers of money up and restrict most of the planet from even taking part.

It’s these people who would bring the most benefit to your conferences, your schools, your ventures. They’re the ones with the actual grassroots experience. They know what the real situation is. They know what the world needs, what their community needs. They have plenty of power and determination and energy to make a difference. They want to make a difference. They’ll do anything to even dream of such opportunities.

Don’t use money to shut them out.

Advertisements