In Southeast Asia, small enterprises dominate the landscape, from rural farmers to the street vendors who crowd the sidewalks of megacities. This culture of small enterprise lays a foundation for social entrepreneurs with a leapfrog mentality. Social startups have captured the imagination of everyone from young college students to disgruntled women factory workers to investors, all of whom are looking for novel solutions to the problems of food, water, small farmers, and, in some cases, an aging population. In urban environments, an increasingly well-educated, tech-savvy, and young middle class has the potential to create positive change, although risks remain that growing consumption will drive unsustainable global supply chains. With less extensive urban slums than its neighbors in the developing world, many of Southeast Asia’s most pressing poverty issues are still rural, and balancing rural with urban needs over the next decade is necessary to achieving equity and equality throughout the region.The Critical Questions
In a landscape crowded by NGOs, social enterprise is a growing strategy for meeting the challenges of poor and vulnerable populations. In Malaysia, 75% of youth surveyed on Facebook claimed to be social entrepreneurs, while a Thai university sponsors an annual competition to develop social enterprise business plans.
How will Southeast Asia tap the enthusiasm for social enterprise to stake out an alternative path to economic development?
How will the numerous small, informal enterprises that are the main employers of the poor compete with the growing number of larger businesses in increasingly regionally integrated and regulated economies?
How will farmers, large and small, build a platform for food security in Southeast Asia even as they question the principles of industrial agriculture and hybrid crops?
How will the region manage the extreme ethnic diversity as diasporas of students, workers, and tourists interact in an environment of heightened ethnic identity?
How will the region leverage its water advantage for both local well-being and wealth generation in the global marketplace?
How will Southeast Asia negotiate the growing tension between governments and open media as each tries to define what is in the best interests of vulnerable populations?
How will the region resolve the issues of human trafficking in women and children (especially in relation to the sex tourism industry), as well as the issues arising from the live organ trade?