The Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) was held in Milan this year. Martyn Oliver, our Chief Executive, shares his notes on worldwide developments in social business.
This year the SEWF has four main topics around which the sessions are arranged. These topics encompass nurturing an ecosystem, poverty, impact investment and feeding the planet. All of these are within the context of innovation, disrupting traditional models and seeking scale.
Michael Green from Social Progress Index presented on social impact on a global scale. He challenged the idea of gross domestic product as a measure of social progress, presenting evidence that suggested high GDP is not necessarily equivalent to social progress. He pointed out that countries with low GDP often excelled at social progress. On average the world population’s experience of social progress is equivalent to that of Cuba or Kazakhstan. Instead socio-economic factors should be the key considerations.
In another plenary we were treated to a variety of national perspectives on social enterprise with the question of whether social enterprise is government’s opportunity to blend economic growth and social justice. The best of these was from the Ghanaian minister for trade and industry. He brilliantly spoke on behalf of the entire African continent about the post-colonial experience of African education and it being unfit for the reality of the economy. He saw a disconnect between the economy of resource extraction and education and was opening the doors to social enterprise to solve these problems.
A further highlight was presented from a little closer to home, HiSBe is a social enterprise supermarket in Brighton. They champion local produce, paying their people well and offering good value for money. They also say they are for a fair profit and have ambitions to take on the big supermarkets. Certainly one to watch, it will be fascinating to see if their ambitious long term goal for a UK wide chain comes to fruition. This determination to take on the ‘big boys’ certainly resonates.
Speakers from Italy and Scotland passionately spoke about how their social enterprises were creating homes for disadvantaged people with great success linking social enterprise with the provision of basic human needs. We also heard from the leaders of social enterprises in Africa who are helping to educate residents in rural Tanzania, provide water in Kenya and solar energy in Tanzania.
What struck me most was the relatively small scale of these operations. One building in Milan, a few apartments in Glasgow, 6 villages with solar power in Tanzania. This problem of scale goes to the heart of social enterprise. Most of them are very small businesses operating very locally. Access to finance is a big problem. Scaling a business without capital is impossible and I wonder if social enterprise is destined to be forever characterised by the dichotomy between reality and ambition. I think we were one of the few genuinely nationally present social enterprises.
A few months ago I was advising the DWP on their commissioning strategy at a roundtable. I said then that commissioning through the VCSE was commissioning for social good but the measurement of that social good was at best an inexact science.
Ultimately, we need to concentrate on demonstrating social impact because that message may be easier to answer and communicate than measuring.