UN Sustainable Development Goal 5: the role of social enterprises in achieving gender equality

by Izabela Żurowska, Engagement Manager at GES

The UN launched the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the Global Goals, in September 2015. Their purpose is to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change in the period up to 2030. With all the Global Goals being interconnected, the far-reaching aim is to put the world on an ‘inclusive and sustainable course’.

Since September, a lot has been said on how to make the goals truly sustainable. According to UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki Moon, “tackling growing inequality, in rich and poor countries alike, has become a defining challenge of our times”, and “our post-2015 objective must be to leave no one behind”.

The course of industrial and social progress throughout history has proven that it is predominantly women who get left behind. For that reason, Global Goal 5 is dedicated entirely to achieving gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls.

GES’ engagement within the SDGs framework is aligned with the overarching purpose of the SDGs. Issues such as sexual abuse by security companies at mining sites, mistreatment of women in detention centres and discrimination in the workplace have long been on GES’s radar. Now, these topics have become a focal point in discussions on the SDGs.

Asian Women Social Entrepreneurs Conference
Asian Women Social Entrepreneurs Conference

On 17-19 May 2016, I participated in the third Asian Women Social Entrepreneurs Conference, held by the Association for the Promotion of the Status of Women (APSW) in Bangkok, Thailand. I learned there that the challenges for women involved in any kind of social business in the Mekong region have been extremely hard, with the main issues being a lack of resources, strict gender expectations and a lack of acceptance of women in the workplace.

For that reason, APSW – one of the first NGOs in Thailand – has been working on promoting gender equality and facilitating economic empowerment and activities for women. The organisation has faced many challenges, such as remaining financially stable while acting as a change agent for the cause of women in the region. Nonetheless, it managed to successfully transform itself from donation-based NGO to income-generating social enterprise. According to Dr Maytinee Bhongsvej, APSW Secretary-General, women are still not properly recognised in mainstream economic development processes, and have to contend with specific issues, including a lack of policies, a failure to recognise “gender neutral” businesses and the perception of female entrepreneurship as unusual and abnormal. In addition, in the Mekong region patriarchal values are so entrenched that, more often than not, women operate in a very discriminatory environment.

The aim of the conference was to explore these topics and discuss the CSR challenges both in the Mekong region in general and within the specific context of social enterprise. In addition, the conference considered global and regional trends in social enterprises (SEs) and the future of social enterprise.

There is a common consensus that social entrepreneurship can help international actors in achieving the Global Goals, and SEs are said to be filling the gaps left by traditional development. Social enterprise has been gaining momentum in Asia particularly, and has been recognised for providing sustainable solutions to society’s persistent problems. It is believed that India and Africa are the largest SE laboratories in the world, but it seems that the Mekong region is not far behind. Even though the social enterprise landscape varies significantly between Mekong countries, common challenges remain the same, such as the lack of legal or policy framework or a supportive ecosystem.

As I mentioned before, the environment for women running businesses in Asia has undoubtedly been difficult, and SEs run by women operate in an even tougher context. Doing business without being accepted and treated equally, as well as lacking access to financial, technological, social and political resources were the most common problems that women who I met at the conference confronted.

For Bettr Barista, a Singaporean SE launched in 2011, the goal is to help underprivileged women who have found themselves on the margins of a rich, technologically advanced country. The Singaporean context contrasts with the Mekong region, as the underprivileged person in Singapore often does not lack access to basic essentials, but rather lacks the social skills to operate in a competitive, unforgiving environment. With that in mind, Bettr Barista aims to cooperate with multinational corporates. I found this approach quite rare compared to other SEs present at the conference.

Malaysian social entrepreneurs said that the lack of a legal definition of SE in the country makes measuring the social impact of their enterprises very difficult. Also, convincing corporate and government partners to cooperate seems to be challenging. SEs commonly spring from local communities, which do not speak ‘the corporate language’, and as a result, multinational enterprises do not perceive them as serious business partners.

In Thailand, economic development and industrialisation cause many disconcerting social changes, when people move from rural areas to the cities and have to deal with an entirely new life and job. Social enterprise has offered a solution to the country’s personal debt problem, which is said to be one of its most significant social issues. If the average Thai worker is believed to have two dependents, it is no wonder that black market lending is so popular and yet damaging. SEs, such as iCare Benefits, offer fair-price essential products and services to workers through a deferred payment plan with zero per cent interest, so the workers do not have to rely on black market lending or consumer finance. iCare Benefits as a membership-based retail platform connects suppliers and sells essential household, healthcare and education related products and services mostly to factory workers in Asia, making a profit from the difference between the wholesale and retail price. The enterprise is cooperating with many multinational enterprises and helps workers to come out of the cycle of debt and poverty.

Seeing these issues in a wider economic context makes it clear to me that the targets that the UN has set in order to fulfil Global Goal 5 cannot be met by either traditional businesses or SEs alone. Consequently, these models will have to cooperate. In my view, the question of how has already been answered in many different ways. Some of the solutions include:

  • Addressing the SDGs from a ‘bottom-up’ perspective
    • The bottom-up approach taken by social enterprises makes them swifter and more agile than large corporations, allowing them to develop innovative business models that can achieve the SDG targets. SEs have proven to be a practical mechanism for achieving systematic change, thus driving more sustainable development[1]
  • Treating the private sector as a valued partner in collective efforts to support sustainable development[2]
  • SEs not relying only on funding, but becoming part of a multinational supply chain
    • By connecting poor people to markets, inclusive businesses directly improve the lives of the poor by making them part of the value chain of companies’ core business as suppliers, distributors, retailers or customers[3].

After meeting with the women running SEs in the Mekong region, I am sure that SEs have the potential to leverage their businesses to make the SDGs truly sustainable. And, if properly supported, women can take a leading role in contributing to economic growth, mitigating social problems and narrowing the gender gap.

[1] http://www.undp.org/content/seoul_policy_center/en/home/presscenter/pressreleases/2016/02/21/undp-partners-with-mysc-on-building-business-partnerships-to-advance-the-sustainable-development-goals.html

[2] Ibidem.

[3] Ibidem.

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