The land of Creative Capitalism

June 29, 2008

Durreen Shahnaz, who is working as an Associate Professor in the University of Singapore writes the following article in Daily Star in Business section on 26 June 2008 titled ‘The land of creative capitalism’ discussing the opportunities of social business in Bangladesh:

I wrote a piece for this newspaper several months ago, the general theme of which was that we as a nation need a tag line or a ‘mantra’ around which we can unite the country. Given that in the last few months I have not heard any compelling suggestions, I will be presumptuous enough to give our country a tag line/vision/theme, which is, ‘In five years time, Bangladesh will be the world leader of creative capitalism’.

By ‘Creative Capitalism’ I do not mean that we have to be creative about our capitalistic ways (which, unfortunately, we have been with our rampant corrupt practices).

The term refers to a self-sustainable business, which has a social mission or a market-based solution to a social problem. Creative Capitalism was widely discussed at the Davos Economic Forum, which took place at the beginning of this year. Bill Gates coined the term in his speech and called for new ‘creative capitalism’ to help the poor.

The buzz now is about creating a system with twin missions, namely, making profits, and at the same time, improve the lives of those who do not fully benefit from the market forces. Gates is aiming to persuade companies to embrace his idea of socially beneficial ventures that make money.

Similar to Gates, our own Professor Yunus has also been talking about this in his speeches as he travels the world. His term for it is ‘social business.’ In his book, Creating a World Without Poverty, Professor Yunus goes into details about his ideas of social business. The essence of Professor Yunus’s book is that ‘for-purpose’ organisations need to distinguish themselves from ‘for-profit’ and ‘non-profit’ enterprises.

Creative capitalism or social Business or socially conscious business or sustainable social enterprise – whatever the label one uses, the reality is that we have a few shining examples in Bangladesh. Aarong, Grameen Phone, Cell Bazaar, Drik, Prabartana are examples of such successful sustainable Bangladeshi businesses with strong social missions.

However, the number of these self-sufficient social businesses in our country is currently limited. The reason being, we are a nation of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO). With over 20,000 registered NGOs, we have come to believe that every answer to social change will come from a NGO.

The truth of the matter is that the NGOs have played a big role in the growth and development of the nation. However, the world is changing fast and for us to effectively keep up with change and give our citizens the rights they deserve. We need to embrace capitalist practices, enhanced with a social mission.

Bangladesh needs the high returns of pure profit-driven businesses, tempered with good labor and operational practices. However, the business sector and the government are recognising the world over, that alongside businesses pursuing pure profit, it is desirable to encourage some businesses to focus on social returns as well. This means that Social Enterprises and Free enterprises (private sector good or bad) can complement one another and need not be mutually exclusive.

For us to encourage sustainable social enterprises in Bangladesh, we not only need the spirit for it, but we also need the capital to back it and of course the correct government regulations to encourage it. This is where the money that is pouring into the country can make a difference.

I have recently seen a lot written about the various funds (some by non-resident Bangladeshis) talking about great investment opportunities in Bangladesh. In much of this, I have seen Bangladesh being referred to as the ‘next Vietnam’. With Vietnam’s soaring inflation rates and the economy near collapse, perhaps, it is not a good comparison right now.

However, Bangladesh can become better than India, China or Vietnam, if the investors, business sector and the government, full-heartedly embrace the need and value of an economy supported by sustainable social enterprises. I would put my money on it.

So my request to the potential investors and entrepreneurs is that, while we are building this country, let us try to build it in our own unique way.

While you look to invest in the next garment factory, why not invest in a garment factory that treats its labour fairly and uses environment friendly dyes? Or, while we look to improve tourism, why not use the revenue generated by tourism to save our mangrove forests or preserve the cultures of our indigenous peoples?

I am in the process of pulling together a fund to do just that. I will play my part in making Bangladesh, in five years time, ‘the world leader of creative capitalism’. Will you?

The writer is an associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the managing director of a regional media company.

Published in Daily Star on 26 June 2008

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