Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is set to launch a new campaign to alleviate poverty, this time aimed at getting business and community leaders to help the poor set up social enterprises to provide jobs and income. . . Social enterprises - small locally based businesses that usually plough profits back into the community - are recognised as an effective tool in lifting impoverished populations . . . SCMP, October 6 Notice the 'this time aimed at' in the first paragraph. The last time Donald took aim at alleviating poverty, he asked Hong Kong's tycoons to be good boys and pay proper wages to their security and cleaning employees. Silence is golden, they say. The tycoons kept silent. They kept the gold too. Now Donald is to have another try at dealing with that black mark against the government's record of an income disparity that is much greater than in economies of similar wealth and is also steadily growing. I have some difficulty, however, in trying to understand just what social enterprises are and whether they really do anything but give their sponsoring civil servants opportunities for self-congratulation. For starters, do these have to be small enterprises? If they are bigger ones but still plough profits back into the community, does their greater size somehow make them less socially valid? I fully recognise in this respect that it is harder for civil servants to be patronising to big companies than to small ones, which tends to defeat the purpose of civil servants in sponsoring social enterprises. Even so, big businesses may plough more money back than smaller ones and that should count for something, shouldn't it? What's more, big businesses give jobs to civil servants when they retire and that should tickle them as much as patting small businessmen on the head. Why do only small businesses meet the criteria? And as to ploughing profits back, from where comes this implicit assumption that commercial enterprises do not plough profits back? Listed company statistics indicate that on balance Hong Kong companies reinvest the bulk of their earnings and take out less than half as dividends. The amount ploughed back by social enterprises is utterly minuscule compared with what commercial enterprises plough back. Ah, yes, but social enterprises plough it back into endeavours that are more socially worthwhile, you say. Do they? Who is the arbiter then of what is socially worthwhile and what is not? Has God come down to some new Mount Sinai and handed down new tablets of the law to say that it is socially worthwhile to sell lentil beans but socially unworthwhile to build shopping centres in which to sell them? Help me out here. Did this happen? And just how are these social enterprises to be organised? The structure that has evolved over centuries for enterprises that do things with money is one of share capital subscribed by shareholders and a board of directors to oversee investment of this capital. If we are to talk of social enterprises having profits to plough back into the community, then we are talking of them doing things with money and, in order for them to have the money, they need to have someone to invest money in them first. Who is to subscribe to their share capital? Will it be government alone? If so, then what we are looking at here is a massive and ramshackle intervention in the economy without even a stated purpose or goal for the intervention other than that the intervention be channelled through social enterprises. Social enterprise in this context inevitably means people who are good at writing government funding applications. It's an art requiring subtle skills and knowledge but it's an art that concerns itself only with raising money and has nothing to do with spending it wisely. Donald, however, apparently thinks that he can get 'business and community leaders' to do the job. Of these two, forget the community leaders. They have no money and it is money that is needed. It is not mentioned but don't fool yourself. The moment this effort is started, someone's hand will go out for money. Thus, it will have to be business leaders, and let us note immediately that any social enterprise that makes sense as a commercial enterprise would long ago have been set up as a commercial enterprise. Thus, what Donald is really talking of is corporate philanthropy. This is an older term with some negative connotations, but we have renamed it to clean it up. These days, we call it NGO for non-governmental organisation and, if you look around the world, you will find that almost all the worthwhile social projects you can find are run by NGOs. The money comes from rich folk, either directly or through the companies they run. But Hong Kong's rich folk prefer to direct their charity contributions to the mainland these days as they think this will stand them in better stead with the bosses in Beijing when they subsequently want official sanction from Beijing for building hotels and shopping centres. It's my guess that this social enterprises initiative will be met with the same outstanding, roaring, stupendous success as Donald's earlier voluntary minimum wage scheme. And I don't think we should talk of profits ploughed back. There won't be any profits. All there really will be is public money ploughed under.