After five years of working towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the global health community still has a long way to go to achieve health related goals by 2030. To improve health and well-being for all global health organizations need to reflect on the successes and challenges to date, as well as reflect on how to make programs more sustainable. One way to create and maintain sustainable health programs is through the social enterprise model.
Social enterprises are for-profit organizations that utilize business practices and the marketplace to advance social justice and development. To be defined as a social enterprise a program must address a social need, generate income mainly through commercial activities and primarily focus on the common good. Types of social enterprises include: one, opportunity employment – organizations that provide jobs to those with barriers to mainstream employment (i.e. Goodwill); two, transformative products or services – creating social or environmental impact through innovative products or services (i.e., World Bicycle Relief, Grameen Bank); and three, donate back – organizations that donate a portion of profits or goods to meet social needs (i.e. TOMS).
Global Health and Social Enterprise
There are several examples of successful global health social enterprises that can be leveraged to create new, or modify existing, programs. In some low-income countries the social enterprise model has been used to strengthen and empower the nurse and midwife workforce. In other examples, Unite for Sight, a non-profit organization working to deliver eye care to low-income countries, partners with clinics all over the world and engages with social entrepreneurs to increase patient access to vision care; and Dispensary of Hope, utilizes the donate back social enterprise model to provide free medications from pharmaceutical companies to health clinics all over the world.
Another successful social enterprise working to solve a global health problem is Days for Girls International. While on a trip to Kenya in 2008 founder Celeste Mergens discovered girls having their periods were sent to their rooms for days, sometimes going without food, and were forced to sit on cardboard until they stopped menstruating. Days for Girls set out to address this issue by designing a washable, long-lasting pad since many of the women and girls without access to menstruation products also lack access to sanitation and safe disposal of pads.
To date Days for Girls has reached over 1 million women and girls in 125 countries with their Days for Girls Kits (DfG Kits). The Days for Girls Social Enterprise Program trains local women to produce and sell DfG Kits, as well as provide women with menstrual health education. According to the Days for Girls 2018 report, 81% of participants in the social enterprise program reported earning an income, and overall the program has created jobs and increased women’s confidence and ability to become business leaders in their communities.
In the development world terms such as social enterprise and social entrepreneurship are often used, but not often defined. Social enterprises are businesses which maximize social good and financial return, while social entrepreneurship is about creating change agents by investing in the ideas of social entrepreneurs. While the latter is important it is equally, if not more important, for sustainable change in global health to invest in, create and support social enterprises that can provide in-country jobs and economic stability, as well as solve important health problems.
As we head into 2020 and plan for achieving the SDGs in the next ten years, finding innovative ways to solve global health problems will be critical. Global health organizations need to capitalize on the success of current social enterprises, and partner with in-country social entrepreneurs in order to solve intertwined health and development issues. Creating sustainable change means moving beyond charity and finding ways for low-income countries to prosper; because in a global economy when low income countries thrive – everyone thrives.