Can a small group of people make a big difference?

Can a small group of people make a big difference?

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  – Margaret Mead

fulbright_chile_at_fiftyThe quote is well used and might even lose some of its impact over time with repeated usage. But it recently came alive in a fresh way when speaking with one of South Africa’s respected business leaders as he described the dramatic impact a few individuals had made on the economic prospects of an emerging market country, saying that it only takes a few well prepared individuals to change a nation.  He was referring to a group of around 100 individuals who were specially equipped and trained at some of the top educational institutions in the world to make a contribution to their country, Chile.  They became known as the “Chicago Boys” as many of them studied at the University of Chicago.

They were very much on the fringes of influence, until after the 1973 coup in Chile. With the country in a desperate state, the leaders turned to the ideas of the Chicago Boys and over the following decades their impact on Chile was remarkable, sometimes described as the “Miracle of Chile”. Not only did significant numbers of them taken up key leadership positions in the country including four Minsters of Finance, two Governors of the Reserve Bank and many other cabinet, civil society and corporate leadership roles, but they also had a significant economic impact on Chile.  Two statistics are particularly impressive when we consider them in relation to the targets of the South African National Development Plan (NDP). Firstly from the mid 1980’s until 1997, Chile averaged an incredible 7% economic growth rate and secondly in 1988, 48% of Chileans were below the poverty line and by 2000, this number had reduced to 20%!  (The South African NDP goal is to move this poverty level from its current 39% of the population to 0% by 2030)

Although there are surely many more levels of analysis required around this story, I could not help but be motivated by such a clear and powerful confirmation for the belief that a small group of committed individuals can really shape the future. It gives one confidence that it only requires a relatively small number of people, aligned to the same common purpose, to achieve a tipping point of change. It is a belief that drives the whole philosophy of the Foundation. While our approach has a different focus, harnessing the power of entrepreneurship rather than pure economics, it is our dream that in years to come the world might reflect on the contribution of Allan Gray Fellows with a similar sense of wonder at how much can be achieved by a small group of individuals. (And how much better are our chances when not limiting ourselves to only one gender!)

As we start 2015, let’s take heart from this and many other similar examples to shape the future in a way that does justice to the potential of our country and lifts the ideals of the NDP from the pages of a document into the reality of our daily lives. We need many different “Mead groups” each showing commitment to their own causes, or in the words of the NDP vision statement:

We say to one another: I cannot be without you, without you this South African community, is an incomplete community, without one single person, without one single group, without the region or the continent, we are not the best that we can be.

No more mediocrity, let’s be the best we can be.

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1 Comment

  • DavidLePageZA 15/01/2015 at 8:37 pm

    This account of Chilean economic history is rather misleading. By 1982/3, the ‘Chicago Boys’ had overseen a 19% drop in GDP, and by 1990, the number of destitute people had doubled.

    Amartya Sen, the great development economist, concluded that:

    “The so-called “monetarist experiment” which lasted until 1982 in its pure form, has been the object of much controversy, but few have claimed it to be a success…The most conspicuous feature of the post 1973 period is that of considerable instability…no firm and consistent upward trend (to say the least).”

    It’s worth noting that Chile’s economic expansion finally occurred following measures that are regarded as anathema in South Africa:

    – Restoring the minimum wage and collective bargaining
    – Public sector job creation
    – South America’s only law restricting the flow of foreign capital

    – Expropriation and nationalisation of banks and industry
    – Land reform

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