How social enterprises can help us meet the SDGs

As countries work towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals and solving development problems in a sustainable way, relying on international aid cannot be a long-term solution. Are social enterprises the answer?

Sambayanan ng Muling Pagkabuhay ni Kristo coop
Leticia Reyes lives in the Smokey Mountains, Philippines and improved her life after landing a job with the Sambayanan ng Muling Pagkabuhay ni Kristo cooperative. Social enterprises could be the solution to weaning societies off development aid. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has intensified the search for sustainable solutions to development problems.

While multilateral agencies such as ADB can provide funding for infrastructure, technical assistance to build and strengthen systems, it is clear that development assistance cannot go on indefinitely, as one of its aims is to nurture self-reliance and self-sustaining solutions.

A promising approach to sustainable development that complements development assistance is social entrepreneurship. In our recent paper Social Entrepreneurship: Improving Global Healthwe explain how social entrepreneurs have improved global health while also facilitating economic, social and environmental wellbeing.

Social entrepreneurship can be characterised by the adoption and practice of several principles.

First, social entrepreneurs apply business and management principles to solving social problems, especially where governments or markets have failed or where there are unmet needs. 

Second, social entrepreneurs emphasise the development of efficient, affordable and cost-effective solutions. The need to work within severe resource constraints has encouraged social entrepreneurs to be innovative and develop frugal solutions.

An example is Ehealthpoint, which works in some of the poorest areas in India, offering residents access to clean water at a low, fixed monthly cost. At the same time, it takes advantage of the points where residents collect water to provide primary care. Ehealthpoint developed a frugal solution that achieves both a public health goal (access to clean water) and a healthcare delivery goal (improved access to primary care).

The third guiding principle of social entrepreneurship is sustainability of solutions. Exemplary business practices and the quest for frugal solutions are not enough; social ventures need to sustain their own existence. Ehealthpoint is able to sustain itself by using the revenue it collects from the water distribution network to support the primary care points. 

We see social entrepreneurship as a valuable addition to the toolkit of ADB, the UN and other multilateral agencies in their quest for sustainable development. In addition to promoting inclusive business initiatives, development agencies should consider training beneficiaries in the principles and practice of social entrepreneurship, providing seed money for social ventures, and supporting promising social ventures that have shown proof of concept and some early successes.

Development agencies should also help create ecosystems for social entrepreneurs to grow and thrive. Since they already have extensive international networks, development agencies can provide a platform to connect social entrepreneurs, impact investors, venture philanthropists and academics, enabling the exchange of experiences and insights and perhaps even promoting collaboration among the parties.

(Social entrepreneurs’) willingness to question assumptions, to ask ‘why not?’ and transpose solutions from one realm to another, is worth emulating.

The UN, for example, already has its own Impact Fund, and ADB its inclusive business initiatives. These could be built upon to create platforms or hubs for interaction and growth in the spirit of SDG 17.

From our perspective at the National University of Singapore (NUS), we observe a remarkable and growing interest in social entrepreneurship. NUS hosts a social venture competition each year. Last year we had 683 entries and this year we have 1,027. The quality of entries has also improved. As we stated in our paper, the rise of social entrepreneurship is a trend that cannot be ignored.

To solve the world’s biggest problems, we need inter-disciplinary approaches and inter-sector collaboration. SDG 17 explicitly states that we need partnership to achieve all the SDGs.

By their very nature, social entrepreneurs draw ideas from diverse fields and have a healthy disrespect for traditional and sector boundaries. Their willingness to question assumptions, to ask ‘why not?’ and transpose solutions from one realm to another, is worth emulating.

Not everyone can be a social entrepreneur, nor should everyone be a social entrepreneur.

However, social entrepreneurial ways of thinking and social entrepreneurial perspectives are worth understanding and adopting. We believe that social entrepreneurship is a viable and significant way to nudge the world closer to the attainment of the SDGs.


Audrey Chia is Associate Professor, National University of Singapore Business School, Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, and Lim Yee Wei is Associate Professor, National University of Singapore, Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health. This post was originally published on the ADB Blog.

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