Social enterprise in spotlight as Bangladesh hosts dialogue

On 25-26 February 2015, over 100 policy experts, academics, social entrepreneurs and social investors from South Asia, East Asia and the UK met for a high level policy dialogue called  “Social Enterprise: Policy and Practice” hosted by the British Council in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Ahead of the event, Masud Hossain, Head of Society at British Council Bangladesh, explained that, “the event will focus on how Bangladesh can harness the experience of other countries and develop a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the Bangladesh government to support the sector’s rapid growth.” 

We now need to create the legal and regulatory structures [...] for SEs to sustain themselves and multiply

According to Mohammad A (Rumee) Ali, Adviser to the Interim Executive Director, BRAC, “Bangladesh is the birthplace of microfinance. We as a community therefore have accepted the principles of social entrepreneurship [...] We now need to create the legal and regulatory structures to create an enabling environment for SEs to sustain themselves and multiply. Therefore, we need to engage all the stakeholders to ensure the structures we create facilitate the creation of the right eco system.”

Indeed, Bangladesh has been a global pioneer of social enterprise since the 1970s, thanks to organisations such as BRAC and the Grameen Bank. BRAC was founded as a relief organisation in 1972 and today is the largest development organization in the world, focusing on poverty alleviation and reaching 135 million people from Haiti to the Philippines. It is also 70-80% self-funded and has been called “the most astounding social enterprise in the world.”

The Grameen Bank emerged from the work of Professor Muahammad Yunus to provide microloans and banking services to the rural poor, enabling them to cushion against financial risk, start businesses and escape poverty. Grameen and Prof Yunus were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2006 and Grameen now works in financial services, health and agriculture and supports microfinance in 13 countries.

Today there is a small but vibrant social enterprise movement in Dhaka and a relatively large amount of social-enterprise activity across the country. To date, however the government of Bangladesh has not actively engaged with the social enterprise ecosystem and there are no specific policy frameworks or legal form for social enterprise in Bangladesh. As a result, social entrepreneurs lack easy access to judicial advice, intellectual property protection, and bankruptcy laws.

They also operate with limited non-governmental support. There are no higher education institutions in Bangladesh providing social enterprise courses, for instance, and no formal networks for social enterprises.

However, Bangladesh has enjoyed economic growth above six per cent over the last decade and has a thriving start-up sector. It aspires to reaching middle income status by 2021, on the 50th anniversary of its independence. To attain this goal, Bangladesh will have to foster innovation, creativity and livability in its cities, argues the World Bank. 

These are goals that social enterprises are well positioned to help the country achieve. According to Mridul Chowdhury, CEO and Founder of mPower Social Enterprise Ltd.,

“Social enterprises in Bangladesh are operating at the intersection of development and market, addressing the inefficiencies of market forces that fail to address the needs of the disadvantaged, and building innovative eco-systems that generate economic opportunities for multiple stakeholders.”

To that end, the event featured delegates from Bangladesh’s leading social enterprises, government agencies and non-government organisations as well as from Singapore-based impact investor Shujog, Social Enterprise UK, and the UK’s Cabinet Office. The presentations focused on policies that have supported the growth of social enterprise in other markets and best social enterprise practice in Asia and the UK. There will also be panel discussions on social enterprise in higher education and social enterprise and women’s empowerment.

One out come of the policy dialogue was a report with recommendations for pragmatic policies that can help Bangladesh social enterprises to scale up and thrive.