Social entrepreneurs and Pakistan

Around 29 per cent of our population is now between the ages of 15-29 years

Syed Mohammad Ali August 25, 2018
The writer is a development anthropologist. He can be reached at [email protected]

Pakistan’s burgeoning youth is a double-edged sword. Provide them the right opportunities and they can deliver a demographic dividend, enabling them to be productive and help secure the needs of the elderly and those still young. On the other hand, ignoring the youth’s own needs can cause their restless energy and frustrations to erupt into violence and other forms of disruptive behaviour.

Pakistan currently has the largest population of young people ever recorded in its history. Around 29 per cent of our population is now between the ages of 15-29 years. Since 64 per cent of our entire population is still below the age of 30, the youth population is predicted to become even larger in the coming years.

Given this situation, it was good to see the recently released National Human Development Report (NHDR), prepared under the auspices of the United Nations Development Programme, focus exclusively on the country’s youth. This report identifies a range of human development challenges and opportunities from the perspective of the country’s youth. One specific issue which this article intends to discuss is the need to harness the productive potential of Pakistan’s youth, for which the NHDR has called on the government, its international partners, and even venture capitalists to invest in youth-led social entrepreneurship.

Social entrepreneurship is very much in vogue development strategy. It aims to create profitmaking entities, which can simultaneously do social and environmental good. Social entrepreneurs are given seed money by international donors, large corporations and rich philanthropists to come up with ideas that can make money, while tackling pressing problems like providing basic health, education and sanitation to poorer people, and addressing environmental issues.

It is easy to understand the enthusiasm surrounding social entrepreneurship since it seems to offer the opportunity of absolving aid agencies from constantly trying to secure funds to finance the work of NGOs or cash-strapped governments in developing countries. While social entrepreneurs are also reliant on donor assistance, they aim to become sustainable as they scale up their operations to an extent that it can achieve meaningful impact and simultaneously generate sufficient revenues to finance their operations. Even venture capital is moving into the social realm with the intent of making profit by catering to the vast unmet needs of poorer people.

The NHDR is enthusiastic about using social entrepreneurship to create needed opportunities for the youth. Our youth and women are however already quite active in the 500,000 or so social enterprises already operating in Pakistan, according to a British Council survey conducted in 2016. Many such entities are engaged in microfinance provision or are focused on the education sector. Many social entrepreneurs are being supported by international donors, and some are affiliated with academic institutions, such as the Social Innovation Lab, housed at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Entrepreneurs and business leaders also seem increasingly eager to capitalise on the country’s entrepreneurial potential, including the Acumen Fund.

Despite the NHDR’s enthusiasm to use venture capital to support more of our youth to become social entrepreneurs, who can make money for themselves and their investors by extending the market mechanism to previously bypassed communities, it may not deliver the expected results. Our youth needs to be nudged and guided to ensure that their entrepreneurship also addresses pending needs of marginalised communities with the same level of commitment as making their ventures socially profitable. Unless this happens, social enterprise development will become just another means for the already privileged segments of society to make money, in the name of trying to make the world a better place.

It is thus important not to get too carried away with the idea of social entrepreneurs becoming the fix-all for all our problems. Our youthful social entrepreneurs can develop innovative and cheap products to meet unmet needs but they cannot overcome structural inequalities, which continue to disempower and disadvantage vast segments of our population. We particularly need to remain cautious about trying to use social enterprise to deliver essential public services. Despite the growing enthusiasm for social enterprise development, it is important to remember that at the end of the day, social entrepreneurs can only afford to help those who have the ability to pay them.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 25th, 2018.

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