Faint scent of snobbery behind social enterprises

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 November, 2011, 12:00am


In 2006, the government set aside HK$150 million to fund social enterprises. But a short-sighted approach and poor planning have resulted in a less than admirable success rate ...

Post Magazine headline, November 27

It's the time-honoured way. When things go wrong, blame everyone but yourself, whinge, moan and grumble. Sometimes I think social enterprise produces nothing quite so much as complaint.

But its routine 'less than admirable success rate' is not surprising. Social enterprise is fundamentally flawed in that it is based on a short-sighted approach to economic life. It also suffers from an unpleasant degree of moral snobbery.

Even a definition is hard to pin down. By and large, social enterprise means setting up a business for social good rather than private gain. Yet even this very general description now begins to fail with the rising clamour for allowing profit, too.

I have no objection to profit. I think it a very good idea. My only quibble is that social enterprise is, in truth, best defined by the fact that it expects privileged access to society's resources, which is where I would draw the line. Find your own money, folks. Keep your hands off the public purse.

This business of investing for social good, however, reminds me of the old Winston Churchill aphorism that the best investment society ever makes is putting milk into babies.

Not far behind, I'm sure, is putting vegetables into babies, or even into adults, which introduces the question of how we regard the business of the maih choi poh, the vegetable seller in the wet market who supplies our dinner tables.

She performs a very valuable service for my family. She helps keep us alive. She is, of course, only the public face of a long chain of growers and transporters who labour to serve this social good. But I cite her because she is such a cheery individual, quite the opposite of an old scold, which 'maih choi poh' can also be taken to mean.

You may disagree with me about this, of course. You may say that she only does it to make money and is not sanctified by the higher purpose of performing a social good, which would inspire her if her stall were a social enterprise.

Would you now like to ask me again why I find social enterprise flawed by moral snobbery? I think it an insulting notion that the careers of 99.99 per cent of us are in some way made sordid because we seek to make a living from them.

But let's say it were indeed true that seeking above all to do good is what redeems that 0.01 per cent of us employed in social enterprises. What would one then say of the havoc inflicted by my missionary forebears from the Netherlands who set out to convert the heathen of their Asian colonies? They sought above all to do good.

I know what I would say of them - God spare us these do-gooders. Evil is never as vile as when done in the name of good.

Social enterprise employees, however, do not work for social good alone. They are paid the minimum wage at least, which is likely to be more in some weeks than the maih choi poi makes, particularly when Donald sets his minions on her in his unrelenting campaign to destroy wet markets.

So is there really any difference between that vegetable stall and a social enterprise when they both generate only a bare living and they both serve a valuable social purpose?

Yes, there is indeed a difference. One is proud to rely on its own resources and the other grouses if it cannot feed at the public trough.

Even when thus fed, however, it does not really surprise me that so many social enterprises fail. We have 5 million adults in this town aged 20 to 65 and they are all on the hunt for business ideas. There simply are very few socially worthwhile ideas that can be set up as businesses and have not already long been set up that way. That's what I mean by social enterprise having a short-sighted approach to economic life.

And don't let these people tell you that they create jobs. Any time that you spend money you create jobs. But it is not best done when public money is squandered on jobs that routinely fail as soon as the public trough is pulled.

You made a mistake in letting them feed there at all, Donald.