In recent weeks, Egypt has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. However, hidden amongst the understandably negative coverage, what caught our eyes at Cause4 this week was a recent Guardian article highlighting the potential of social enterprise to make a difference, even in countries seemingly overrun by conflict. Whilst both insightful and informative, the piece begs the question as to how much of a difference social entrepreneurship can have on its own.
If one considers the Egyptian organisation Nahdet el Mahrousa, the answer at first seems to be: a significant one. Founded in 2002 by a group of ambitious young professionals, Nahdet el Mahrousa is the first incubator of early stage social enterprises in the Middle East. In the past 10 years, it has helped provide funding and strategic support to over 40 Egyptian social enterprises that look to address the root sources of societal issues, rather than their symptoms. This ambitious targeting of the core causes of collective concerns has undeniably paid dividends: the organisation estimates its work impacts over 50,000 individuals in Egypt annually. Moreover, its innovative reputation for addressing issues from the ‘bottom up’ has facilitated partnerships with high-profile corporates. Past programmes include a collaborative initiative with IBM, PwC and P&G to match the needs of civil society with skilled volunteers from the business world and a highly successful online campaign promoting Social Innovation run with Yahoo! Egypt.
Undeniably, these inspiring initiatives provide a much needed counterweight to the traditional ‘top down’ treatment of development issues by governments and wealthy foundations. Cause4 is always in favour of individuals and organisations who try to make a difference with innovative, practical solutions, and the success of Nahdet el Mahrousa demonstrates that social enterprise can be used to address issues in developing as well as developed countries.
When confronted with evidence such as this, it is tempting to race ahead of reality and herald social enterprise as the hardworking, free-market panacea to the world’s problems. However, despite such successes, it would be farcical to suggest that social enterprise can tackle all major problems on its own. Social enterprise’s greatest strength is that it marries the pursuit of profit with the creation of wider benefit. However, this can be a significant weakness in areas of the world with a collapsing economy. Reliance on profit means that to function, social enterprises must exist inside a viable, regulated economic system, which requires a minimum amount of stability.
Placing moral judgment aside, it is undeniable that the unrest in Egypt and elsewhere harms market performance and consequently works against, rather than for, enterprising grassroots development initiatives. Whilst there is most definitely a role for social enterprise in resolving global problems, it relies upon, and cannot replace, a functioning state when it comes to societal organisation. It is essential to remember this caveat, which provokes the question: do we expect too much of what is a potentially effective, but also a nuanced, development tool? And is social enterprise better or worse than charity in addressing pressing issue in zones of conflict and instability? We would love to know your views.