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04 Aug. 2015 | Comments (0)

Social enterprises are becoming a popular driver of social impact. This is true in the developed world, where organizations such as Lava Mae and Feeding Forward—both of which presented to The Conference Board Contributions Council II in San Francisco earlier this year—are creating exciting new models of service delivery. But more significantly, it’s also true in the developing world, where these organizations can deliver both social impact, as well as much-needed economic stimulation.

In April, Bradley Googins participated in a Q&A on this blog about how the E4impact initiative is creating a new generation of social entrepreneurs in Africa. In this post, we focus our attention on the Middle East and North Africa. George Khalaf, an experienced hand in the region now working with Synergos Institute, kindly answered my questions.

Q: What are some of the more pressing social issues facing the Middle East?

A: After decades of minimal political change, countries in the Arab world have more recently witnessed significant challenges to their traditional systems. The recent economic growth in the region has not generated shared prosperity or improved the daily lives of most people. For example:

  • The region boasts the highest youth unemployment rates in the world
  • Up to 100 million jobs have to be created in the next 20 years just to absorb new entrants to the job market
  • About half of all women and one-third of all men are illiterate
  • Arab women’s economic participation is the lowest in the world.

On top of this, government services are inadequate, inefficient and often corrupt.

Q: Why is social entrepreneurship an effective tool for tackling the Middle East’s social issues? What are the hallmarks of an impactful social enterprise in the region?

A: The Middle East’s “youth bulge” generates pressure on labor markets, education systems, health care, and infrastructure. In this context, traditional development frameworks in the Middle East are inadequate and in need of transformation. Within the complex ecosystem of domestic governments, international donors, businesses and individual philanthropists, social entrepreneurship has emerged as one of the most promising approaches to improving the well-being of the people of the Arab world.

Whether creating sustainable agriculture practices in Lebanon, building bridges to a brighter economic future for the garbage collectors in Egypt, overcoming exclusion and promoting employment using mobile phone technology in Palestine, or creating a library in every neighborhood to foster a love of reading among Jordanian children, social entrepreneurs combine innovation and business skills with a determination to improve the well-being of the communities they serve. Many of the social entrepreneurs in the Middle East are filling voids in goods and services that one would typically expect from the public sector.

These exceptional entrepreneurs provide solutions to pressing social, economic, and environmental problems. Some of the most successful social entrepreneurs have been able to replicate their model across localities, countries, and even regions, thus serving as conduits through which development solutions are tested, adapted, and implemented.

Q: What unique challenges do social entrepreneurs in the Middle East face?

A: Social entrepreneurs in the Middle East face a number of challenges, some similar to those outside the region and others more unique to the Arab landscape.

First, the growth of social entrepreneurship in the region is limited due to challenges accessing finance. Many of the region’s social entrepreneurs depend disproportionately on funding from international donors. These funds tend to focus on short-term project needs and, therefore, limit the ability to engage in the long-term planning needed to achieve more sustainable impact.

Second, social entrepreneurs often have to navigate an overly complicated and bureaucratic legal registration process. Most social entrepreneurs rest in a no-mans-land between social businesses and charitable organizations. They often have to register as nonprofit organizations, which limits their ability to become sustainable or to scale up.

Third, there is a lack of awareness or understanding about social entrepreneurship as a concept in the region. Academic institutions have been slow to incorporate social entrepreneurship into their curriculum. Similarly, local media has not adequately showcased the social entrepreneurship success stories in an accessible way.

Finally, social norms in the region often discourage young people from the risk taking associated with pursuing innovative and creative careers. It is, therefore, not surprising that many social entrepreneurs report feeling marginalized and lonely in their endeavors.

Q: Are large companies engaged with social enterprises? How do those partnerships typically work?

A: Corporations are becoming more strategic in terms of their philanthropic, CSR, and employee volunteer programs, aligning these more closely to their core business practices. Our experience has indicated that there is an appetite in the corporate sector to partner with social entrepreneurs as a way of serving untapped markets, building inclusive business models, demonstrating commitment to a social mission, and promoting corporate brand and reputation.

Most of the examples of corporate engagement with social enterprises in the Middle East fall under a traditional corporate philanthropy category. These are characterized by the corporation as the donor and the social enterprise as a recipient. Moving forward, it would be great to see more examples in the region of strategic partnerships where the corporates and social enterprises are each harnessing their own competencies and comparative advantage to co-create social value.

Q: How can social entrepreneurship be expanded throughout the region?

A: There are several organizations (including Synergos) that support individual social entrepreneurs to scale up their initiatives. This support typically includes financial awards, technical assistance, capacity building, mentors, and access to a global network. Although this individual support to social entrepreneurs is necessary, it is not sufficient to adequately meet their needs in the Middle East.

Globally, social entrepreneurship has flourished where key institutions and economic actors are actively engaged in creating an environment that supports and cultivates new, indigenous ideas and innovative practices. In the Middle East, any progress will depend on active collaboration across institutions at the national level, as well as great cooperation between countries at the regional level.

To support the ecosystem for social entrepreneurship, government, business and civil society leaders must pursue new ways to identify and adapt good practices emerging across the region and around the globe. This will involve the development of institutional alliances to capitalize on social entrepreneurship and boost economic opportunities for young people in the Middle East, and prepare the region to become more fully integrated into a rapidly changing global economy. 

  • About the Author:George Khalaf

    George Khalaf

    George Khalaf serves as the Middle East/North Africa Regional Director for the Synergos Institute as well as the Director for Synergos Consulting Services. Over the past five years, Mr. Khalaf has des…

    Full Bio | More from George Khalaf

  • About the Author:Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson

    Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…

    Full Bio | More from Alex Parkinson


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