Opinion by Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana.
This year, the United Nations is marking its 75th anniversary – a milestone of extraordinary economic and social progress in Asia and the Pacific. While the Organization enjoys a lifespan almost equal to the world’s improved average life expectancy, the future lies with those who have recently embarked on theirs: our young people.
As they continue breaking ground with entrepreneurial spirit to address defining issues of our time like climate change, technology and inequality, our investments in them will win the battle for sustainability.
Young entrepreneurs have been a source of innovation and economic dynamism, creating jobs and providing livelihoods to millions. To achieve and accelerate action on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we urgently need their expertise and voices on creating solutions to social and environmental challenges, as well as economic opportunities.
Yet, they have needed no prompting: the social entrepreneurship movement has emerged in Asia and the Pacific in response to pressing issues, including COVID-19. Spearheaded by the region’s young people with a strong sense of social justice, social entrepreneurs are providing innovative, market-based solutions that break the mold of traditional models focused on economic growth. But we must do more to truly realize the transformative potential of young social entrepreneurs.
First, we need to ensure that the next generation of business leaders think about social purpose as well as profit. To achieve this, education will be critical. Governments play a key role, like the Government of Pakistan’s Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. The Centre’s mission is to support students and young entrepreneurs identify innovative business solutions to urgent problems related to the SDGs.
Second, we need to scale up innovative financing solutions. It is encouraging to see governments embracing impact investing as a policy tool to provide much-needed finance to young social entrepreneurs. As an example, ESCAP supported the Government of Malaysia to launch the Social Impact Exchange. The Exchange mirrors a traditional stock exchange and links social purpose organisations to impact investors.
ESCAP and its partner the UN Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) are also supporting organizations like iFarmer in Bangladesh. The joint effort has supported iFarmer in creating a digital app to establish a profit-sharing model between urban investors and rural women farm entrepreneurs that involves the purchase and management of livestock. After successful livestock management (raising and selling cattle), the investor and woman entrepreneur share the profits, while iFarmer receives support through a management fee.
Third, as we are living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digitally savvy young social entrepreneurs hold much promise. While Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies pose challenges to the economy – most notably relating to jobs and the future of work – they also have the potential to spur mass entrepreneurship and new ways of doing business. ESCAP is currently supporting FinTech start-ups like Aeloi Technologies to develop digital finance and green solutions for women entrepreneurs. Aeloi’s goal is to make impact funding for women microentrepreneurs accountable and accessible using digital tokens, providing an assured digital link between funders and carbon offset providers. They work specifically with the electric minibus sector in Kathmandu, Nepal. Their system helps ensure that each $1 of investment is used towards building renewable energy powered transportation by providing real-time climate and social impact tracking.
The United Nation’s 75th anniversary comes at the critical juncture of a new decade to accelerate the SDGs and recover from an unprecedented crisis. The need for innovative solutions and stronger cooperation across all stakeholders, particularly the youth, is clear.
In this context, the UN family’s anniversary event in Asia and the Pacific will bring together young social innovators and entrepreneurs from across the region whose ideas, platforms and businesses have made an impact. These innovators will discuss how technology and innovative solutions of today can be scaled up to build back better towards more inclusive, resilience and green economies and societies.
We stand ready to support these young people and their innovative solutions for tackling inequality and promoting inclusion, economic empowerment of women and girls and moving towards decarbonization and tackling air pollution. In many ways, it is they who are carrying the mantle of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.