Rethinking social entrepreneurship

Women’s economic participation is more than a photo-op

January’s Mashreq Conference on Women’s Economic Empowerment was a welcome initiative at a time where socio-economic conditions for women in Lebanon are dire. In addition to a discriminatory legal, political, and social environment, women continue to make up less than 25 percent of the labor force, according to 2018 World Bank estimates. Donor pledges to support women’s economic empowerment are a huge opportunity, but efforts to fund empowering programs often ignore core issues at the heart of Lebanon’s economy. A big concern is the encroachment of social entrepreneurship as a one-size-fits-all approach to women’s roles in the economy. As an emerging terminology into the entrepreneurship ecosystem, it tells women the sky is the limit, but in reality allows the government to shirk its responsibilities while trapping women in a model that has not proven itself to be sustainable.

What social entrepreneurship is—and is not

Broadly defined social entrepreneurship is an approach to solving socio-economic problems through sustainable income-generating tools. The entrepreneurship ecosystem in Lebanon has focused some of its efforts on promoting social enterprises through incubators and other programs targeting women in both urban and rural settings. But such programs often leave the government on the sideline and focus more on the logic that women themselves need to create their own economic opportunities. That is not to say there are no success stories; notably Soufra (Full Table), a food truck run by Palestinian women in the Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, the documentary of which was recently screened in Beirut and followed the story of its founder, Palestinian refugee Maryam Shaar.

Shaar’s story is not an unfamiliar one; countless women in Lebanon have been driven to set up small businesses to survive, including my own grandmother, a Palestinian refugee who set up her own grocery store to feed her seven children and provide jobs for her community at the brink of the civil war. Social enterprise is simply the new watch-word that development donors have decided to use to label the inherent ability of women to be versatile and creative in times of distress. But social entrepreneurship is not—nor should it be—the main strategy for economically empowering women.

The lessons from Soufra’s success

Soufra’s model pushes us to think of structures of financing and opportunities to integrate women in the formal economy in three ways. First, Soufra is funded via Alfanar, an Arab venture philanthropy. This means that Soufra has actual investors who expect a return on their investment, whereas the overwhelming majority of funding to the Lebanese social entrepreneurship ecosystem is via foreign donors. This is reminiscent of the 1990s/early 2000s, when NGOs in Lebanon mushroomed without improved governance. Instead, these NGOs filled the gap in service provision, letting the state off the hook. Social enterprises do the same to women: they make for nice photo-ops with donor agencies, create temporary jobs, and allow the state to shirk its responsibilities—eventually the funding will run out. 

Second, social entrepreneurship does not effectively provide women with sustainable jobs because it does nothing to address structural market inequalities. Sexual harassment, wage inequality, gender-based violence, and political marginalization are just some of the reason why women in Lebanon do not work—or work but do not reach managerial positions. Social enterprises create parallel alternative economic models that last as long as income keeps coming in, but which collapse the moment the initial success wanes off. There is almost no data and little evidence that social enterprises can last longer than the initial round of seed funding.

Third, the main players setting criteria for and supporting social enterprises have no relevant experience and expertise. It is not people like Shaar, nor like my grandma, running these programs. Few of the organizations championing social entrepreneurship for women are actually social enterprises themselves or are headed by women. These approaches tend to leave out the contextual factors that make the Lebanese workforce especially difficult for women. There are cultural, societal, and political intricacies that cannot be solved using a textbook based on outside experiences. They need to be addressed by transforming the workplace to be more equitable to young women, working mothers, disabled women, and elderly women.

Rethinking the approach

Not all social enterprises are without merit, but to truly encourage women to enter the workforce we need to talk about the role of the state in social justice. The pressure should be on government to play a more direct role in making businesses more inclusive. The private sector and civil society should not wait on the government forever, but sidelining the role of legislation and policymaking, while Lebanon continues to receive foreign funding will not yield sustainable results. There have been similar experiences with previous Paris donor conferences, and it may occur yet again with the CEDRE pledges. The onus should not be on women themselves to improve their economic conditions because this will exclude the majority of women whose efforts do not go under the label of social entrepreneurship. It excludes women fighting inside their workers’ unions for better access to social security, it excludes women facing harassment at work, it excludes refugee women and migrant workers. The way to empower women is to fix Lebanon’s endemic economic problems, not to create temporary solutions.

Carmen Geha is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration at the American University of Beirut

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