Social policy plays role in expansion of 'third sector'
Social enterprises are playing an increasingly important role in Taiwan. It's a trend that gained momentum as community consciousness and a self-help mentality took hold amid soaring unemployment and widening income inequality in the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis 15 years ago.
Since then, government policies have played a key role in the development of the so-called 'third sector'.
Social enterprises first began to emerge in Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s, with examples such as the wheelchair business of the Eden Social Welfare Foundation, the bakery-restaurants of the Children Are Us Foundation and the car wash centres and petrol stations of the Sunshine Social Welfare Foundation.
These non-profit organisations embraced the notion of social enterprise not only to enhance financial self-sufficiency through commercial activities but also as a means to offer employment to socially disadvantaged groups.
Increased support from the government helped the non-profit sector compete with commercial enterprises.
Professor Kuan Yu-yuan, head of the department of social welfare at National Chung Cheng University, says a key turning point came in 2002 with a government decree on measures for the procurement of products and services from groups and organisations devoted to promoting the welfare of the disabled and their sheltered workshops.
This directive stipulates that public agencies and units should give priority in their purchases to the goods and services to those produced by organisations and sheltered workshops for handicapped people.
Kuan points out that social enterprises cannot rely solely on government assistance. They need to broaden sources of financial support in order to uphold their autonomy. 'To succeed, these organisations also need knowledge and techniques, professional staff, ways to maintain product quality as well as management abilities,' he says. The government should create a regulatory framework conducive to the operation and development of social enterprises, he says. Also, there appears to be a need for greater co-operation within the sector.
'Some social enterprises in Taiwan are relatively well-established and experienced, and a knowledge-sharing network can be developed under a common cause of serving the socially disadvantaged to serve as a platform for exchanges of best practices, thereby facilitating the sound development of Taiwan's social enterprises in the future,' Kuan says.