Social enterprise in Asia and Europe – learning from each other

Social enterprise in Asia and Europe – learning from each other
29 July 2013

Asia and Europe flagsDespite their countries’ different contexts, participants at a recent gathering in Berlin found much that unites them   Earlier this month, over two days in Berlin, more than 30 social entrepreneurs from more than 20 countries in Asia and Europe met to discuss how to develop a better policy context for social enterprises in the two continents. The gathering was organised by the British Council and the Asia Europe Foundation, and sponsored by the government of Japan.

The two days comprised a visit to Berlin social enterprises – Ruby Cup and Fairnopoly – and discussion with their founders about how they operate and are funded; briefings from leading social entrepreneurs such as Penny Newman from the UK and Muhammad Ali of BRAC; and a series of seminars and workshops, aimed at finding a consensus between participants about how policy can support social enterprise in both Asia and Europe.

Establishing common ground between such a diverse group of participants, drawn from 23 counties in two continents was a challenge. Asia is more economically and developmentally heterogeneous than Europe, and the experience and nature of social entrepreneurs seems to vary even more than within Europe. As Shariha Khalid, co-founder of Scope Group, a Malaysian social impact consultancy, put it: “The development of social business in Bangladesh develops in a context which is not comparable with the social enterprise movement in South Korea. In many ways social challenges have a totally different scale in Asia.”

Colleagues from Burma, a country emerging from a dictatorship, were concerned that taking on the role of delivering public services meant letting the government ‘off the hook’ of being the duty holder. Participants from Pakistan, among others, were less concerned about the role of a state being usurped, as they felt that the state was not delivering the services in the first place – and that social enterprises were well placed to fill the vacuum.

Yet over the two days, certain themes shone through from both sides. Both Asian and European colleagues spoke of the need for sustainable models of investment, access to finance and to contracts, and for a greater need for social enterprise to be understood by policymakers and by the public, if it is to have a scalable and significant impact on the social problems faced in their continents. Participants from both continents worried that the lack of a definition of social enterprise left the sector open to non-social operators, and might deter social investors.

Many of the Asian participants were impressed by the European – and particularly British – experiences of setting up legal, financial and even legislative support for social enterprise, with the public services (social value) act attracting much interest.

From the European perspective, Kostas Geormas, a special advisor to the Greek minister for labour, welfare and social security, suggested that Asian colleagues could learn the ways with which social economy has tackled obstacles to its development in Europe, a theme echoed by Nicolas Hazard, chairman of Le Comptoir de l’Innovation, a French social investment form who urged Asian social entrepreneurs not to ‘reinvent the wheel’: “Many European countries can claim at least a one century long history of social entrepreneurship – Asia could learn from the European expertise and know-how in terms of social enterprises.” Full Text

Photograph: Over 30 social entrepreneurs from more than 20 countries in Asia and Europe gathered in Berlin. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/REUTERS

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