Keynote Speech at Social Enterprise and Women Empowerment

Delivered at Social Enterprise and Women Empowerment in Islamabad, Pakistan

In Asia-Pacific economies, SMEs that have been the generator of economic output, employment and dynamism, will be a valuable source of innovation in the pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals and women’s empowerment. As the report in front of us points out, this however is possible only if the right support is provided for them to transform and uplift businesses to serve as social enterprises.

Women’s role in harnessing the power of markets and businesses to tackle society’s challenges is now well established in ASEAN. Sustained growth in ASEAN has in fact been accompanied by increased women’s labour market participation to 60 per cent with women entrepreneurs now reaching close to 60 million - proportionally higher than other developing countries.

Women-led social enterprises are increasingly recognized as key to advancing women’s economic empowerment. Social enterprises create proportionally more jobs for women than the for-profit sector, they provide opportunities for entrepreneurial and leadership roles for women and can help deliver targeted products and services to meet the requirements of women and girls. In Pakistan, 20 per cent of social enterprises are led by women, compared to 5 per cent for other companies. This provides a unique opportunity to leverage social enterprise to further gender equality, innovation and productivity.

To harness the potential of social enterprises to promote women’s development, we can draw on countries that have advanced achievements in this area. In this context, I would like to offer five key policy priorities that along with the other recommendations of the Pakistan report in front of us can play an instrumental role.

First, education has been a key driver in promoting ASEAN women’s entrepreneurship – an area where Pakistan with its low women’s literacy and enrolments, needs to turn the corner more sharply and distinctly. Addressing persistent gender inequalities requires lifelong education and training to equip women with the necessary skills, because entrepreneurial businesses and cultures change over time. Financial literacy is an equally important aspect of acquiring life-long entrepreneurial skills. Urgent action is needed in Pakistan where less than 30 per cent of women are in the paid workforce; only two per cent of business loans go to women.

Second, the ASEAN experience has further demonstrated the benefit of enhancing the outreach of financial services with proactive involvement of the private sector to promote micro and small business. Leveraging this calls for designing the right government programmes with greater reliance on social sector financing options. Not only does it facilitate diversified lending, but also helps lower transactional costs for women entrepreneurs as markets are incentivized through credit enhancements to offer women better access to SME equity and bond markets; trading platforms; digital financial services; impact and gender lens investing; and crowdfunding. Most of all, ICT now offers an opportunity for Fintechs to fast replace traditional financing schemes. It has potential to connect large numbers of people instantly across time zones and create larger pools of funding.

Third, we need to equip the next generation of women business leaders with social values as well as business acumen. We need an environment in which the captains of industry are judged not just by their profit margins but also on their broader approach to society and the environment. With this in mind, I commend the leadership of the Government of Pakistan on plans to establish a Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. ESCAP stands ready to support you to establish this innovative new venture including by sharing best practice from across the region.

Fourth, access to finance is a more significant challenge for social entrepreneurs pursuing economic, social and environmental objectives because traditional investment decisions are made solely on commercial criteria. Creating an enabling environment for impact investment is needed to catalyse companies, organizations and funds to seek social and environmental change while maintaining the quest for financial returns. To create an enabling impact investment climate, the foundations for an effective investment regime must be in place that call for establishing efficient processes for starting a business, resolving insolvency, strengthening protection for minority investors and contract enforcement as first order priorities. The regulators have a role to play in this context and I hope they will step up to the plate.

Fifth, based on this policy framework, providing incentives for investors to move from investment to impact investment should be a next crucial step. South Asia has been at the forefront of this trend. The United Kingdom’s Department for International Development’s Survey of Impact Investment ranked Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia as the largest markets for impact investment activity. ESCAP and the British Council recently entered a partnership with the Global Steering Group on Impact Investing to build the momentum behind impact investing in the region. Twelve - mostly developed countries - have already set up National Advisory Boards for impact investing to engage investors and policymakers on this agenda. Japan, India and soon the Republic of Korea, are engaged in these efforts. ESCAP stands ready to support the Government of Pakistan to develop a National Advisory Board for impact investing.

Finally, we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution; a revolution which has been, and will be, defined by emerging technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, and quantum computing. In this area, the Asia-Pacific region is leading from the front. The global market for artificial intelligence is forecast to hit $11.1 billion by 2024 and the Asia-Pacific region is set to be the key world market. In this context, it will be critical to equip entrepreneurs with the technology skills required to compete in the inevitable technology-driven future that we face. ESCAP has placed great importance on this agenda through our work at our regional institute the Asian and Pacific Training Centre for ICT for Development (APCICT). A flagship programme of APCICT is the Women ICT Frontier Initiative or WIFI. This is an integrated ICT and entrepreneurship training programme for women entrepreneurs and policymakers. It includes training modules that encompass the spectrum of topics and issues on ICT, policy and women entrepreneurship. In addition to training, WIFI offers tools and platforms to support women entrepreneurs. These include the WIFI InfoBank, an e-learning platform that hosts the WIFI training modules, and a Mobile Leaning Platform giving access to WIFI training through mobile devices. I would welcome the British Council to partner with us to bring this program to Pakistan.
While still in nascent stages, the social enterprise sector in Pakistan is vibrant. Social enterprises provide innovative solutions to a range of issues such as education, job creation, health care, digital literacy and advocacy.

Social enterprise and impact investment have been identified as key agendas outlined in the “Asia-Pacific Roadmap for the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda in Asia and the Pacific”. Earlier this year, ESCAP and the British Council signed a memorandum of understanding to promote the growth of social enterprise and impact investment across the Asia-Pacific region as a means of supporting progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. The aim of the agreement is to cooperate to provide research, analysis, training and policy dialogues, while offering guidance to support policy makers and other stakeholders to formulate and implement policies and strategies that foster social enterprise and create enabling environments for social impact investment.

In conclusion, to achieve the full benefit of social enterprises, several measures should be taken to improve social entrepreneurship ecosystem in the country. At UNESCAP, we are working on some concrete proposals to catalyse and promote a gender-responsive entrepreneurial ecosystem, that I hope will be supported by new donors. This ecosystem will enable women entrepreneurs to access the resources and support such as technology, innovative practices and good governance needed to develop their businesses, scale them up and make them sustainable. But for supportive ecosystems, multi-sectoral collaboration is essential with concerted efforts needed by policymakers, financial institutions, the private sector and the women entrepreneurs’ networks.

At ESCAP we are keen to support Pakistan’s efforts to shift this movement from the margins to the mainstream, and to advance women’s empowerment as an integral part of inclusive and sustainable growth.

I thank you.