Social Entrepreneurship: Solving social challenges, shaping public policy

Grameen shows the way

A few weeks ago, my social enterprise consulting start-up was nominated for the 2010 World Technology Award in Social Entrepreneurship by the World Technology Network. Although I was delighted, I was concerned about the social challenges plaguing Muslims in the MENASA (Middle East North Africa South Asia) region. I reflected on Riz Khan’s interview with Rashad Hussein focused on reviewing Obama’s Cairo commitment. Rashad Hussein stated that the Obama administration was actively looking to explore partnerships including entrepreneurs in the Middle East. I asked myself a few questions, “Who are these entrepreneurs? How are they finding innovative solutions to social challenges and how are they shaping public policy?” Although there are social problems to contend with, Muslim social entrepreneurs can serve as change catalysts in shaping the future and public policy.

Poverty still exists as a prevalent issue plaguing Africa and South Asia, even though numerous campaigns and initiatives have been led by countries and institutions from alternative schools of thought. In 2005, two reports from the United Nations Millennium Project, led by Dr. Jeffrey Sachs of the Columbia Earth Institute and from Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa called for a doubling of World aid and a contribution of at least 0.7% of GDP per annum by OECD member nations. Similarly, time and again, Jeffrey Sachs has called for a “big push” and “shock therapy”. While these concepts were borrowed in the 1950s and 1960s, when the World Bank lent money for capital and infrastructure projects in developing countries, comparing the situation in the MENASA region to Russia and Eastern Europe and hoping to duplicate the success of America’s post-war Marshall Plan can also be misleading.

For instance, not only is the economic and political climate different, but the impetus for such initiatives have been top-down, instead of bottom-up. Dambisa Moyo, author of Dead Aid, discusses how developed economies have spent close to one trillion dollars in aid, but poverty still looms Africa.

Furthermore, financial aid can be misleading primarily because it assumes that capital advancements will aid in economic development, even though there is evidence that massive transfers of wealth have not helped. The incentives facing those disbursing aid and those receiving aid seldom make economic development and poverty alleviation the criteria of success. Often times the litmus test of success is dependent on how much money is transferred. In many situations, financial aid fueled by corruption, lack of governance and transparency, has solidified existing regimes and made necessary changes less likely. In effect, this has not become the protocol for change and economic development in the MENASA region.

In contrast, Muslim social entrepreneurs and the microfinance initiatives they have developed have much to offer. Initiatives in the MENASA region geared towards poverty alleviation and social enterprise, such as the Grameen Foundation and Grameen-Jameel, are some notable efforts. Another example based on Grameen’s microfinance initiative, Bab Rizq, created 4,323 jobs in May for young men and women in Saudi Arabia. Similarly in the US, non-profit organizations such as Islamic Relief USA have organized events focused on civic engagement, serving the needs of the poor, and addressing poverty hands on. Islamic Relief has organized “Day of Dignity” events to serve America’s most needy, and for 2010 they have increased the number of cities they will visit to address poverty. On the international front, the director of Ashoka Arab World, Dr. Iman Bibars attended the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship and raised the importance of incorporating social entrepreneurship to ensure that the Islamic world recognizes and supports entrepreneurs in their own communities.

In addition, Muslim leaders in the East and West have initiated youth initiatives on civic engagement and development in the MENASA region. For example, Hazami Barmada, Founder and President of Al-Mubadarah: Arab Empowerment Initiative discussed the organization’s vision and projects in a luncheon session, earlier this year, co-sponsored by the Cordoba initiative and the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). In Saudi Arabia, a similar role is played by Mubadiroon, a hybrid venture-capital fund and incubator founded by Abdulrahman Tarabzouni that focuses on knowledge entrepreneurship, ICT transfer and technology commercialization.

International non-profit organizations, such as Net Impact, have taken steps to educate, and equip individuals to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world. Since the organization’s foundation in 1993, Net Impact now has professional chapters in the Middle East, including Net Impact Saudi Arabia, that focus on catalyzing the social impact of MBA graduates and business professionals in that country.

With respect to environmental sustainability and interfaith dialogue, Muslim social entrepreneurs are also leading the way based on their entrepreneurial talent and vision. With respect to environmental sustainability, Ibrahim Abdul-Matin discusses what Islam teaches about protecting the planet and explores intersections of Islam and social business entrepreneurship in the book Green Deen. With respect to interfaith dialogue, Eboo Patel founded the Interfaith Youth Core in order to start a movement focused on religious movement where people from different religious backgrounds come together to create understanding and respect by serving their communities. His organization has been recognized across the board by organizations, such as, Ashoka and ASMA society and he has serves as a role model to youth interfaith leaders. Debbie Almontaser, Coordinator of External Programs for Brooklyn public schools and Board Chair of the Muslim Consultative Network, has left a clear, public record of interfaith activism and outreach across the boundaries of race, ethnicity and religion according to Samuel G. Freedman, Professor of Journalism at Columbia University. At the core of such movements lies American Muslims. As Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf mentions in Eboo Patel’s book Acts of Faith, “In the twentieth century, Catholicism and Judaism underwent profound transformations in America. I think this century, in America, Islam will do the same. It is young America Muslims, a generation both unabashedly American and unmistakably Muslim, who would shape American Islam.”

While President Obama extended his hand during the Cairo pledge and Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship to develop sustainable partnerships with the Muslim World, many Muslim civic and business social entrepreneurs have long made significant contributions in working towards economic development and religious pluralism, and they have accepted his invitation. The question is “Will the Obama administration live up to its part of the commitment and promise?”

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article implied that the book “Acts of Faith” was written by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. “Acts of Faith” was written by Eboo Patel.

Samiur Talukder is Founder and Managing Partner at The ESB Group LLC, a 2008 start-up microfinance venture offering social enterprise consulting and micro-equity, non-interest financing services to those at the economic, base of the pyramid (BoP) and to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in select countries in Africa and South Asia. Samiur sits on the Executive Board of the Muslim Consultative Network, and as a Net Impact scholarship recipient he was selected to serve as a Service Corps member with Net Impact New York.

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