A Question of Social Enterprise

As conscientious consumers it is important to us that we are clever with how we distribute our Kyat; for as much as we spend at Citymart – and you can’t argue that it is a convenient place to buy muesli and tonic water, many of us also feel a natural philanthropic desire to contribute to society. If you are an Expat this may be to a community that has welcomed and accepted your presence.

And what could be a more satisfying and magnanimous way of spending your money than at a business that has been set up specifically to support the poor, disadvantaged, disenfranchised or disabled people of Myanmar?

There are a lot of such businesses about, and many more regularly opening. And although there are some organisations and businesses in Yangon that are to be commended in their tireless efforts to support sustainable positive change for the people they work with, there are also a lot of businesses that could be perceived to be jumping on the ‘band-wagon’ to a certain extent, and perhaps being a little ambiguous with the way they introduce intentions.

And don’t get me wrong I’m not talking about profiteering ‘do-goodism’ here, because I truly believe that all of the organisations that claim to be ‘making-a-difference’ in whatever small way they are – are indeed making some small kind of a difference.

Giant mega-corporations – with incomes equivalent to those of small countries – distribute a fraction of a percentage of their global wealth towards insignificant acts of corporate social responsibility in order that they appear to be kinder and more considerate in the eyes of their customers. Smaller less destructive entities can achieve a similar level of consumer trust and give their customers that warm benign feeling by giving the impression that, for example by paying a kings ransom on a jolly good lunch, they’ve actually just carried out a selfless act of charity.

Mission statements are a way of introducing potential new clientele to understand better the product or service you are providing, and the more benevolent you can make your business sound, the more attractive you can appear to your conscientious consumer. Now you might think that this is being unnecessarily cynical, and perhaps it is, but the next time you are reading the beautifully articulated visions, values and goals statement printed onto the back of an extensive menu of expensive drinks keep an eye out for key words such as empowerment, or accountability, or ‘Social-Enterprise’.

And one of the reasons it is possible to ever so slightly mislead clientele – either accidentally or deliberately – to believe that the establishment they are supporting are perhaps less interested in profit than others, is through this word ‘Social-enterprise’.

The fact that there are numerous confusing definitions – that often contradict each other – of this term means that it is quiet difficult to get a grasp on what a social enterprise really should and should not be doing.

It’s a hotly contested strategy and depending on whom you are talking to you’ll get a variety of opinions on the definition, effectiveness and relevance of the approach. An American might tell you that it is “trade-for-aid”, where as someone from the UK might tell you that it is the complete opposite and the act of benevolence is the driving force behind the commercial activities. Either way, if implemented correctly the end result should be the same.

Ultimately a social enterprise is established to provide sustainable solutions to address specific economical, social, cultural, or environmental problems affecting a specific group of people, community or individuals. Through the development of a collective or a cooperative, a trade or skill is utilized to create items for trade that can generate cash to reinvest back into the organisation to support the growth and development of that organisation, and also be distributed to provide humanitarian and environmental benefits to all the members of the community either directly or indirectly involved or not. No profits are removed from the business in the form of bonuses, high management team salaries, share holder rewards etc.

Social enterprises should be dynamic, innovative, inspirational, and sexy even. But they should also be responsible; they should work with a community, utilize the strengths of that community and find sustainable ways of maximising the revenue that can be obtained through the activities of that community. Now this may be something as simple as supporting a fishing net manufacturing cooperative. Or it could be something much more technical such as the production and distribution of water-pumps. Or it could be making shiny tourist trinkets. The important bit is that a) it makes a significant difference to the lives of all those involved, b) it is a sustainable intervention that needs no external support or funding, and c) it does no harm to others.

But if you think about the other businesses that you could spend your dollars, are they any less worthy? Is it better to spend money at a ‘social-enterprise’ shop than at say the lady (pick one, for there are many) who sells the dancing cats on the steps of the Shwedagon?

Surely the money spent on the Chinese-made Shania Twain singing felines is as relevant? Here you can guarantee that the profit from the transaction will be directly invested in the business, and a proportion of that profit will go directly towards supporting their families and contributing to the economy of their community. No fancy mission statement required. This is how commerce works.

Or perhaps buying a 250Kyat cup of 3-in-1 at the end of your road is just as relevant and important part of the economy as paying 4000kyat for a frothy coffee elsewhere.

And this isn’t meant to be a negative dig at the work of the businesses in Yangon that are claiming altruistic endeavours, just a note to highlight that money spent well, pretty much anywhere that is independent in Yangon, Myanmar, the world, is money well spent.

If you want to go all out to see what I mean, then have a wander down the road on north side outside of the Shwedagon, next to the park and meet guys who sit daily – carving, painting, creating beautiful items before your eyes. They contribute to their community, support their extended families and ensure that their profits are effectively distributed within their environment, they provide skills training to their apprentices and ensure that a cultural responsibility and awareness is passed down through generations. Their work is every bit a “social-enterprise’ as anywhere in town: they just don’t have a sign to prove it.

If you are a conscientious consumer, and it is important to you that you are clever with how you distribute your Kyat; then perhaps just spend some time questioning where you are spending your money. Find out about individual, or business that you are considering using and finding out whether their altruistic claims are really all that they are made out to be.

A version of this article was published in My Yangon – December 2014

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