Fostering Social Entrepreneurship in Lebanon
Social entrepreneurship provides a path to transform Lebanon’s challenges into opportunities for change and development.
I took to the streets at least once a month for 15 years calling for change in a country that suffers from a weak political system, deficient democratic culture, and deteriorating socio-economic conditions. The path of change in Lebanon is challenging and frustrating. A sectarian system makes reform a slow process driven by clientelism. The social and economic system is undeveloped and remains unable to provide equitably for all citizens. The educational system suffers major drawbacks, and does not help prepare students to integrate into the job market.
I was a founding member of several civil society organizations and campaigns advocating change to Lebanese policies and practices in areas such as citizenship and accountability, electoral reform, women’s rights, information access, education systems, and anti-corruption. Still, reform in Lebanon remained impeded by the lack of political will among public officials and the weak capacities of Lebanon’s public sector. The impact of these organizations’ efforts was never up to our aspirations.
In 2009, a group of activists, including me, began to explore new ways of influencing change. We concluded that we were demanding change from a structure that could not do what we asked and came to the realization that three elements were necessary for successful reform: new, capable, progressive leadership; evidence-based policies and solutions; and a more responsive and inclusive public sector. With this in mind, we started a for-profit consulting firm and social business called Beyond Reform & Development, specializing in policy research, public management reform, and people development.
This move enabled us a take on a more professional, collaborative, and influential role with government institutions, political parties, and international organizations. Today, we offer policy advice, learning opportunities, and management solutions to governments in the Levant, the Gulf, and North Africa. This has allowed us, in many cases, to direct the path of reform in government institutions rather than simply demanding that someone else do it. As a business, we are more able to initiate change and provide solutions and build capacity where governments and international organizations need it. The move from non-governmental and nonprofit to a private sector, for-profit company was also a strategic choice to overcome donor reliance and agenda-driven funding.
Our business model has helped us expand and impact communities at an exceptional rate. The model invites like-minded individuals and groups to join and offer their expertise to support the work of public officials and compliment the work of international organizations. We are a social business for several reasons. First, the company is purpose-driven, and all of our projects and initiatives serve social, political, and economic development in the Arab World. Second, our consultants constitute the company's 14 legal and financial partners. All new employees have access to an incubation program through which they can own shares and contribute to the company’s growth and impact. The business is, therefore, owned by citizens who are engaged and willing to use their expertise in the service of reform and development in the Arab world. Third, our governance system is a partnership model based on equitable participation in decision-making rather than on financial equity. Fourth, our clients and beneficiaries are part of the decision-making process via internal and external consultations, and advisory board and feedback mechanisms.
Finally, 10 percent of our profit is reinvested in Lebanese social and political causes that we identify as a result of:
• Sectarian, unqualified political elite with a discriminatory discourse that can trigger civil violence
• Weak public institutions and low-quality public service
• Limited human capacities in government that are capable of providing solutions to citizen problems
I believe that social entrepreneurship in Lebanon can help overcome the government’s inability to ensure quality social and economic services for all citizens, civil society’s dependence on international funding, and the sustainability of private sector businesses threatened by economic challenges and financial crises. Our business has become increasingly involved in supporting social entrepreneurship, and now promotes the concept as a way of addressing Lebanon’s social, economic, and political challenges. Our initial motivation was our belief that any enterprise created to serve a social need deserves a fair, incentivizing, and innovative regulatory framework.
We have since embarked on a journey to identify the challenges to and opportunities for social entrepreneurship within the Lebanese context. Following two years of research and mapping, we issued a report entitled “The Social Entrepreneurship Momentum,” which contains definitions, criteria, and recommendations for understanding and enhancing social entrepreneurship within the Lebanese context (request a copy by email). There are social entrepreneurs across the country, but until recently, they did not identify themselves as such. There is currently no legal framework to categorize social enterprises, which means that social entrepreneurs are treated as any commercial business.
The report highlights focus areas for promoting social entrepreneurship in Lebanon, including:
• Regulating a new legal statute for social enterprises
• Developing tax incentives for social businesses to encourage social investments in sectors such as health, education, and the environment
• Improving the technological infrastructure and accessibility to the Internet in rural areas
• Creating collaborative platforms and networks among members of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem
• Integrating social entrepreneurship into Lebanon’s education sector
Social entrepreneurship is a new paradigm in Lebanon, and it is enabling us to shift from passively demanding to actively taking initiative and becoming part of the solution. We now work on political development, educational systems, women’s empowerment, constitutional development, Information and communication technology strategies, administrative decentralization, and local economic development in 12 Arab countries. Provided the framework, others in Lebanon will have the opportunity to take advantage of this new momentum in the region, and invite the private, public, and civil society sectors into collaborative platforms to solve economic and political challenges.