There is a trend for for-profit businesses to focus their resources on social problems, especially since the disillusionment with financial capitalism across the globe has triggered a search for new models of sustainable economic growth.
However, to what extent have we been able to solve the world’s problems? Globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by 650 million in the past three decades, but there are still more than 1 billion desperately poor people.
One significant reason for underachieving is that solutions from social enterprises have rarely been scalable or truly sustainable. Technology can be a means to achieve scale frugally, but this is not happening often enough. In a report released this week, India ranks fairly well at 64th out of 144 countries in the impact of technology on access to basic services. Yet, India flounders at 136th place among 186 countries on the UN’s latest Human Development Index.
The healthcare sector in India is booming, yet 2.1 million Indian children still die before the age of 5 every year (four every minute), and India has the second highest number of children suffering from malnutrition in the world and the highest number of underweight children. There are a few pharmaceutical companies that are creating affordable drugs and new technology-driven distribution methods for rural India, but these are still start-ups. We have seen in the success of enterprises – such as Wikipedia and the Khan Academy – how technological innovation, multistakeholder partnerships and social entrepreneurship can converge to produce large-scale transformational change. However there exist only few examples of such ventures. The moral ethos of doing responsible business has clearly yet to move on to the ambition of scale that the world today demands of it.
While technology is an enabler, I feel that the greatest obstacle to achieving scale in creating transformational impact is, in fact, a human one. One of the most powerful skills needed today to create large-scale change is the intuition and ability to connect the dots by bringing in the right people and organizations at the right time around a shared purpose.
There is also a lingering bias that profitability is a bad thing for societal good. As a result, businesses shy away from scaling up their resources to do social good and limit their efforts to showcase goodwill. If for-profit big businesses are encouraged to design creative revenue generating models of doing good, then their model will typically maximize returns against investment. And, there is a gap between economic growth and societal change in developing countries such as India.
The present generation that has grown up to witness slow positive change in their social environments despite its country’s fast economic development suffers from a lack of hope for a better tomorrow. This is dangerous. Giving up hope for the future restricts the imagination to think big and do good.
Author: Miniya Chatterji is a Senior Manager at the World Economic Forum, a Global Leadership Fellow and Founder of the Stargazers Foundation
Image: An employ is pictured on the floor of a factory in India REUTERS/Adnan Abidi