Get set, go! Social enterprise ready to grow in Asia-Pacific region

It’s time for social enterprise to move from the margins to the mainstream across a region which is home to two-thirds of the world’s population. A partnership between the British Council and the UN aims to make this happen.

Social enterprise has a rich and varied history across the Asia-Pacific region. In the 1950s, India’s first social entrepreneur, Vinoba Bhave, founded the Land Gift Movement to redistribute millions of acres of land in southern India from the rich to the poor. Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant which uses its profits to fund sexual health programmes, opened in Thailand in 1974. Muhammad Yunus’s now famous Grameen Bank was founded in 1983 to give microloans to Bangladeshi people.

The movement has weathered storms – both political and environmental – responding to challenges and adapting to change throughout the area.

Vietnam drew up its own definition of social enterprise in 2014. The Philippines government is developing new laws including a Poverty Reduction through Social Enterprise Bill and a Social Value Bill. And, inspired by the UK’s Big Society Capital, Thailand is exploring the introduction of its own social investment bank.

Social enterprise experts – entrepreneurs, ministers and other practitioners – from the UK have helped many of these more recent developments come to fruition. Often through the British Council, meetings have been set up, dialogues have been instigated and expertise has been shared.

If you want to accelerate the growth of social enterprise, government can play a huge role by creating the right policy environment

For example, in 2015, Sir Ronald Cohen – often referred to as the godfather of social investment in the UK – spoke about social investment to Thailand’s deputy prime minister and to members of the Stock Exchange of Thailand. Vietnam’s national television channel has run programmes about social enterprise and the UK’s experiences. Learning and best practice have been shared at an event which brought together Professor Yunus, Social Enterprise UK CEO Peter Holbrook and senior Myanmar government officials in that country’s capital, Naypyidaw.

A new collaboration between the British Council and the UN

Now it is hoped that the Asia-Pacific region – which is home to two-thirds of the world’s population as well as some of the world’s most challenging social and environmental problems – is on the cusp of something much bigger. A partnership between the British Council and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) aims to bring social enterprise from the margins to the mainstream across this huge area, which ranges from Turkey in the west to the Pacific island Kiribati in the east, and from the Russian Federation in the north to New Zealand in the south. The focus is to boost progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the launch of the collaborative agreement on Monday 27 February 2017, Dr Shamshad Akhtar, executive secretary of ESCAP, said: “The concepts of social enterprise and social impact investment have been gathering momentum in the region. The three dimensions of sustainable development embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals – economic, social and environmental – underpin the transition to a sustainable future.”

She highlighted that several governments in the Asia-Pacific region and the UK government had already been at the forefront of “innovative policymaking” on this agenda.

She added: “The partnership between ESCAP and the British Council will pool this rich expertise and share effective practices more broadly to shift this movement from the margins to the mainstream.”


Pioneers Post spoke to Tristan Ace, the British Council’s global social enterprise partnerships and development manager, about his ambitions for social enterprise across the Asia-Pacific region.

PP: Why is this partnership between the British Council and ESCAP exciting?

TA: We’ve been doing a lot of work to support social enterprise development across this region. We know that if you want to accelerate the growth of social enterprise, government can play a huge role by creating the right policy environment. Working with UN’s ESCAP, as a multi-lateral, intergovernmental body, provides recognition for our work and the legitimacy and reach to take things to the next level, and there’s a real appetite at UNESCAP to support social enterprise and social investment.

PP: What’s interesting about this part of the world in terms of social enterprise?

TA: There’s a very entrepreneurial spirit. In some places there has never been a big welfare state and the government hasn’t played a large role in public services. We’ve had fast rates of economic growth, such as with the Asian tigers, but, at the same time, huge and rising inequality. Social and environmental problems are being stored up for the future. There’s an opportunity for governments to reimagine their roles in a more enabling way.

PP: How does the British Council work to develop social enterprise and social investment overseas?

Mutuality is critical for us. In the UK, we have done a lot and experimented a lot – probably more than any other country in the world. We can say, “this is how we did it, these are some of the lessons that have been learned, now how can you make it better?” We’re not saying we’re right; we emphasise that there are opportunities for mutual learning. We don’t lobby, but we support governments to develop ideas, and we convene dialogues and connect people.

PP: What’s going on right now that the British Council is engaged with?

TA: Just a few examples: in Pakistan we’re helping to develop a new Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. In India we recently published a survey of the social enterprise landscape. We’ve worked with the Philippines for a long time on the development of the Poverty Reduction through Social Enterprise Bill and we hope that it will be passed soon.

PP: How do you see social enterprise helping to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals in this area?

If we want to solve the world’s problems, we need to solve them in India and in China, given their huge populations. In India, they have moved beyond social entrepreneurship for the sake of social entrepreneurship. They know that social enterprise can help in relation to particular issues, such as skills. Half of all social enterprises in India are operating in the skills sector, either providing training or employing people who find it difficult to access the jobs market. What is required in the future is much better data so that when governments think about the impact of their spending they can see that it will not only have an impact on their GDP, but also inequality. We want to get governments to think hard about how their policies contribute to addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.


Header image: Brejonk Organic, a social enterprise in Indonesia which produces organic vegetables, rice, pickles and more. Image above: Koperasi Nira Satria, which supports Indonesians who produce organic palm sugar. Both images courtesy of the British Council.


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