South Asia is among the fastest growing regions of the world but it has always provided highly contrasting images. On the back of a long period of robust economic growth, the region has the largest number of chronically poor people in the world. According to the World Bank, 399 million people in the region live under $1.25/day, living in chronic poverty. Internationally, South Asia has very poor rates of child mortality and female illiteracy.
Bangladesh has a history of citizen activism in political, cultural and economic sectors. It is enjoying favourable economic growth despite the fact that it is one of the poorest countries in the world with around 31 per cent of the total population below the poverty line of $1.90 a day (World Bank). Bangladesh has made tremendous strides in pulling its people out of poverty but is facing numerous complications such as population explosion, illiteracy and mismanagement of various resources.
India may already be the world's third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity, but as per World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index, it ranks only 60th out of 148 countries, indicating that there is greater potential waiting to be unlocked.
The non-profit sector is mushrooming in the region by leaps and bounds but their potential has remained unutilised because of skepticism towards their role. In spite of the staggering value of 5.3 million non-governmental organisations (NGOs) across South Asia, there is a popular perception that many are inefficient and disorganised.
In the fight against some of the pressing problems in South Asia, one of the most exciting developments in recent years has come in the form of a new kind of business. It goes by the name 'social enterprise'. These enterprises create sustainable social impact by providing the actual needy with beneficial products and services while creating improved livelihood opportunities. These innovative and sustainable business models can be found today in a wide range of areas, from healthcare to education and from sanitation to housing.
Fostering social good business is the solution to the social and environmental problems that South Asia is grappling with, according to Prof. Muhammed Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist and founder of Grameen Bank. "We have to shun the old thinking process that the businesses are meant for making profits. Businesses can unleash the power of youth and technology to solve the world's problems in much faster and a sustainable way", said Yunus.
Social entrepreneurship has a crucial role to play in developing economies, and it could provide a catalyst for unprecedented growth and development in South Asia, according to Vat Vrikshya (http://www.dexglobal.org) founder Vikash Das. Vat Vrikshya is one such social business organisation based in India that aims to empower tribal women and their families to break the cycle of poverty, earn a steady income and gain access to education and healthcare.
"We primarily focus on creating sustainable and diversified livelihood opportunities for tribal women to ensure that families are able to meet their basic needs", says Vikash. The additional projects of Vat Vrikshya include counseling about government services for financial inclusion, equipping women with necessary business skills and branding and marketing of tribal products.
Vat Vrikshya follows a four-pronged approach to development of tribal communities-research, network, education, marketing and transparency. They begin their work by understanding the tribe's culture, problems, community's needs, interest and expertise, and then make an analysis to figure out how they can help tribal communities to be the part of the solution.
Tribal women are connected with role models, such as successful women entrepreneurs from other tribal hamlets, creating opportunities for cross learning and networking. Vocational training is given to tribal women based on their areas of interest.
Osama Bin Noor, a Bangladeshi social entrepreneur, co-founded 'Youth Opportunities' with the goal of connecting young people to valuable skill enhancing and career building opportunities such as scholarships, conferences, competitions, exchange programmes and many others. Osama's dream is an inclusive world where all the young people have equal access to opportunities.
Mizanur Rahman Kiron, another social entrepreneur from Bangladesh, established 'Physically-challenged Development Foundation' that is working for the betterment of the disabled in Bangladesh.
'Arzu' is another innovative social enterprise in Afghanistan that has trained and employed over 1,300 rural artisans. It has directly and indirectly impacted the lives of tens of thousands of other villagers in the country due to the ripple effect of broadbased community development programmes.
While South Asia might be demonstrating the most rapid growth in social entrepreneurship, it is impossible to ignore the thorny issues this highly promising sector is facing. Lack of technical skills is seen as a significant barrier to growth. Lack of infrastructure, funding, support and mentorship have made it difficult for social entrepreneurs to find a foothold in the region. Also, government support for preferential tax policies for impact investors lags behind other regions.This indicates that the sector is in desperate need of timely support and recognition from the policy-makers.
The unwavering economic growth of South Asia and its rising geopolitical importance are going to sustain only if the women, the youth, and the underprivileged are provided opportunities to actively participate in the workforce. Social enterprises can be among the major sectors offering that opportunity.
The writer is a public policy analyst and a UNESCO Association member.