For hundreds of years, many societies have delegated the responsibility to care for the underprivileged to governments and charities. However, the past two decades have seen a surge in the number of businesses taking interest in providing opportunities and resources to disadvantaged individuals, families and communities. Perhaps the most striking examples have come from developing countries, including recent innovations such as portable hospital trains in Asia, solar power for rural villages in Africa and schools in South America.
Social enterprise has become a worldwide phenomenon as individuals from many countries have stepped in to improve the lives of their fellow human beings. Often companies that deliver social benefits in developing countries are initiated by foreign entrepreneurs from developed countries seeking to improve conditions for disadvantaged groups. These efforts are most successful when social enterprise is led by a native of the country in which it is operating.
A prime example of an individual who has used his skills to help those in his own country is a man named Bishnu Adhikari. After obtaining an education in Russia, he returned home to his small village in Nepal and watched as his 60-year-old mother hauled water from a well half a mile from her home. Seeing the difficulties of his mother inspired him to build a pipeline from the well to his village, and started a lifetime of service to his fellow people of Nepal.
Since building that first pipeline, Adhikari has volunteered for USAID and been an important leader in CHOICE Humanitarian. Adhikari’s knowledge and understanding of the needs of the people within his own country have allowed him to successfully identify problems and provide solutions. All in all, he has helped to provide leadership in completing 21 water projects, building 33 schools and installing 900 bio gas digesters. Additionally, he has helped raise over $4 million toward building a teaching hospital. Considering the difficult circumstances Nepal currently faces, these contributions are outstanding.
About 25 percent of Nepal’s citizens live in poverty, and the majority live in rural areas. In agricultural and mountainous regions, it is often difficult and expensive for governments to provide infrastructure and education to villages due to low population densities. This lack of infrastructure means that more time and energy must be spent doing simple tasks such as obtaining water and preparing meals, stunting the growth of local economies. These difficult circumstances also have negative effects on children. Currently, one in three Nepalese children will participate in child labor, which generally prevents them from attending school.
To add to these already difficult circumstances, a decade-long civil war erupted in Nepal in the mid-1990s. After a change from a monarchy to a republic in 2008, the new government is still finding its feet. Until the government becomes more stable, development in Nepal is likely to be slow. The use of business can act as a strong supplement to strengthen infrastructure and the economy without direct government intervention. Thus, the use of business to provide better living conditions and opportunities for the people of Nepal is a necessity as the new government is strengthened.
The example of Adhikari and many others demonstrate the success that social enterprisers are having around the world. Although business is often viewed as a way to build the economy, social enterprise seeks to build individuals, families and communities. By investing in individuals and economies simultaneously, long-term economic growth and prosperity can be achieved for all.
John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development.
Richard Payne, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.
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