How to drive youth social entrepreneurship

A report from the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs looks at ways young people can face the economic challenges of the 21st century

Can social entrepreneurs be a force for social change? And if, so, what role can young people play in this process? A new report by the Division for Inclusive Social Development (DISD) of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) explores the potential of social entrepreneurship in meeting the needs of young people as well as contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals agenda.

The proportion of young people who are not in employment, education or training currently stands at 20% for young women and 13% for young men worldwide. The issue has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. Another recent report by the International Labour Organisation revealed that one in six young people aged 18–29 (17.4%) had stopped working since the onset of the pandemic.

While the idea of social entrepreneurship has been gaining traction for the past three decades, co-operatives have been carrying out entrepreneurial activities to address societal problems since the days of the Rochdale Pioneers. In fact, the report argues that social entrepreneurship was born out of the co-operative movement and explains that young people are attracted to the concept, “in part because it offers the unique combination of income generation and social impact”.

Yet young entrepreneurs looking to set up a social enterprise can face a number of challenges, the most pressing being that they have difficulties accessing start-up funds. Their limited life and professional experience can also represent a weakness, says the report. Legal frameworks in place in specific countries may limit the active engagement of youth in the economic, financial, social and political spheres.

While exploring some of these challenges, the report also reveals that social entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed when they have first-hand knowledge of and experience with the social issues they aim to address. The ecosystems most conducive to successful youth social entrepreneurship are those that offer tailored support, says the report, pointing out that there is a strong correlation between support from established institutions and the effectiveness of social entrepreneurship.

The paper encourages young people to explore how emerging and frontier technologies might form the basis of innovations that could accelerate the achievement of the social objectives of the 2030 Agenda.

“Linking youth social entrepreneurship with new technologies represents an opportunity to disseminate and scale up technological solutions that can improve the global welfare while simultaneously developing the largely untapped potential of youth,” reads the report. Co-operatives are presented as a viable model for young people, particularly those in the informal economy; they help them to gain access to credit through savings and credit co-operatives, benefit from social protection schemes through mutual insurance co-operatives, and overcome isolation through a wide range of shared services.

“As young people are often excluded from policy-making exercises and platforms, the co-operative model is of particular interest. Through social dialogue, co-operatives can promote principles such as democracy and participation,” adds the report.

It also makes a series of recommendations for policymakers, calling on them to integrate social entrepreneurship into the national development strategies and policies.

One of these is to ensure that business development services provided by the public and private sectors include support tailored to the needs of young social entrepreneurs. Another suggestion is creating in-person or online mentoring systems linking young social entrepreneurs with their more established counterparts and establishing peer-support systems to allow a broad diffusion of knowledge in informal contexts. The report also advises that public and private sectors open dedicated channels for young social entrepreneurs, either through quotas or by pairing them with well-established enterprises.

Co-operatives are used as an example of how promoting physical and online-shared spaces and networks for young social entrepreneurs can facilitate the exchange of knowledge and resources and strengthen their collective voice.

The report mentions the Global Youth Forum, an event organised by the International Cooperative Alliance in 2020, which, it says, has created stronger links between the co-operative movement and other youth-led movements and organisations.

Youth social entrepreneurship also contributes to meeting the SDG agenda. According to the report, in 2016, social enterprises benefited 871 million people in nine countries in Europe and Central Asia, providing services and products worth €6bn and creating employment, particularly among the most marginalised social groups. In the UK alone around 100,000 of the 470,000 existing social enterprises employ individuals other than the owner.

With the Covid-19 crisis expected to make it more difficult for young people to access the labour market, youth social entrepreneurship could be an important tool to empower youth. Yet, as the UNDESA report highlights, social entrepreneurship is not “a panacea for youth development”. Policymakers will have a key role to play in addressing the needs of youth through long-term, sustainable strategies.

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