Social entrepreneurship in MENA: always the bridesmaid, never the bride [Opinion]

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You go up to the stage to pitch a social enterprise with the hope that tomorrow is better than today. You hit all the right spots: transparency, impact, engagement. Still, poker faces from the panel of judges.

They are put off by the word “giving”.

Pitching Build Palestine to a panel of private sector professionals at the Amwaj Forum 2016 in Amman made me pause. Could significant funding for social enterprises come solely from the private sector? Will the private sector put their money where their mouth when investing in projects like Build Palestine?

Or will social entrepreneurship in the Middle East be forever condemned to being the bridesmaid but never the bride?

Build Palestine in the midst of a dysfunctional Palestinian economy

Like other social enterprises in the MENA region, Build Palestine was created in the spirit of problem-solving. It is an attempt to address the problem of Palestine’s donor-dependent economy.

Build Palestine operates within a space that has its own set of shared challenges, with other so-called ‘humanitarian startups’.

In the case of Palestine, conditions of occupation, war, and inequality present different circumstances that create unique challenges in comparison to other social enterprises in the MENA region. Border restrictions, difficulties moving in and out of the country, frequent electricity shortages, and lack of 3G connectivity are just a few of the challenges that create a hostile entrepreneurial environment. These circumstances add layers of complexity that command different thinking, innovation, and partnerships.

Build Palestine is one example of crowd-solving lagging social needs whether in West Bank or Gaza. Just across the border, Gaza Sky Geeks, and their crowdfunding efforts to stay afloat exemplify this creative resilience to work in the toughest conditions.

Development paradigm shifts are needed

More than any other place in the world, social entrepreneurship in the MENA region is about solving daily challenges. Where governments have failed there are greater pressures on the private sector to contribute to sustained economic growth and job creation.

The private sector, however, cannot do it alone. Governments’ roles cannot be understated in enhancing policy and capacity-building for private sector development in a bureaucratic environment like the Middle East.

In order for social enterprises to be true catalysts of economic transition, they must be less nearsighted. The assumption that social impact entrepreneurship is about doing well while doing good, immediately and simultaneously, is dangerous. It disincentivizes people from working on the problems most worth solving with a high risk, high reward mindset.

For development to be truly inclusive and comprehensive, we need a paradigm shift to where governments are no longer dependency financiers, but opportunity enablers; and where the private sector moves beyond CSR as the only vehicle for social causes.

The perception of funding social impact projects must shift from burden-sharing to investment-sharing.

Governments are poised to play a germane role, where they can create joint investment schemes for interested stakeholders, including the private sector, NGOs, universities, among many others — to jump on board and drive change. Lebanon’s circular 331 by Banque Du Liban is an example of this cross sectoral commitment to propel job creation and move towards a knowledge-based economy.

Beyond social entrepreneurship

As citizens, changemakers, and social entrepreneurs, we must work at the level of structural change, creating change that is authentic, collaborative, and transformative. We must have the boldness to carve out new change vehicles, joint ventures across stakeholders, to be visionary and connect the dots of the future that we would like to live in.

We still have a lot more work to do. Only with the right conditions of strategic government coordination and authentic private sector engagement, can social entrepreneurship’s potential truly be unlocked to create a better Middle East.

No change worth fighting for has ever been easy. We need to think now about what it will take to live by the words of the famous Greek proverb, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”.

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