Social enterprise doesn't deserve to get a mention

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 October, 2011, 12:00am


In last year's policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen used the words 'social enterprise' nine times. This year he did not mention them even once. This glaring omission highlights how little progress has been made on this front during the past 12 months.

Ming Wong, Social Investors Club Insight page, SCMP, October 19

I think he's right. That is to say, he's right about the number of times Donald mentioned social enterprise in these two policy addresses. I checked and couldn't find a single mention this year. I'll take it on faith that there were nine mentions last year.

Well done, Donald. So you've realised what nonsense this really is. I'm beginning to think, sir, that you are actually starting to get it on matters of commerce. Next stop, drop all the talk about small and medium-sized enterprises and I'll believe your eyes have opened.

I have to confess, however, that I have never been exactly sure what social enterprise means, although this does not greatly bother me as most of its boosters also have trouble defining it. The idea seems to be that it ought to be a business of a sort and should at least try to break even but that its ultimate purpose is to be philanthropic. It must try to do some social good.

This implies, of course, that the normal sort of commercial enterprise does no social good and its shareholders have no concern for the welfare of humanity. It is a very black-and-white view of the world, just what you would expect from the academic and government circles where the idea of social enterprise has its roots. But let's examine it more closely.

Does your grocer do nothing for you? Is the hugely complicated system of food production and delivery, which puts the meal of your choice on your dinner table every night, in some way a reprehensible enterprise because the people involved in it are to a significant extent driven by motives of personal gain for themselves and their families? Could a social enterprise really do better?

I ask because profit margins in the food business are often very slim, certainly in the real essentials of nutrition if not always in junk food. Your fruit vendor in the wet market works long hours and she is not rich, far from it.

In fact you cannot even talk of profits in her business. She may tot them up that way but they really amount only to a wage, a poor one mostly. So why do we not call her business a social enterprise? It serves an enormously useful social role and no one walks off with ill-gotten gains. This is particularly notable because Mr Wong's big complaint is that Donald insists social enterprises must be non-profit. Why can't they turn a profit as long as they 'seek to achieve social and/or environmental missions?' he asks.

Good question, and I have one for Mr Wong. Who is to decide how we then define a social and/or environmental mission? Will it be his Social Investors Club? Will it be a committee of civil servants? If the fruit vendor is no longer to be eliminated for turning a 'profit', why is her stall not immediately classified as a social enterprise?

What I see here is a pronounced hubris among a small group of people who think they have a transcendent, special understanding of what constitutes social good and believe the public purse owes them money for it. Yes, Mr Wong wants up to HK$100,000 a pop in seed money.

Take away the non-profit criteria, however, and all you can really have left is that social good is what the public wants. We may exclude arms traders and nicotine merchants, perhaps, but the large majority of businesses have always been social.

It really is that simple. I defy anyone to tell me he or she has some higher moral authority to tell me what I should buy and what I should not. Most businesses give us goods and services that we really want. We wouldn't go to them otherwise and they would be out of business. They provide us a social good.

And I very much doubt any business that Mr Wong would designate a social enterprise could do it any better or come up with anything not already available from normal commercial enterprises. This town is full of people looking for business opportunities.

The whole idea is false. It is moral snobbery, and government insults hard-working people by sanctioning it in any way. I'm glad Donald has stopped doing so.