Social enterprise and the Middle East crisis

Nathaniel Whittemore raises a key consideration in response to a new Social Enterprise article, "Could social entrepreneurship offer hope in Palestine?"--the possibility "that the entire economic structure of Palestine needs to be able to thrive before any particular sub-genre will flourish."

It's the flipside of a broader issue that social enterprise has yet to address in a substantive way--namely, the artificiality of the distinction between social entrepreurship and commercial business.  Even in the most robust economies, business and social benefit are inextricably intertwined; drawing a line between business with a social impact and for-profit commerce often says more about the line drawer than the social grid.

The situation in Palestine provides a case in point.  The Social Enterprise article, like many of its kind, raises the hope that social enterprise could bring needed relief to a region ravaged by poverty and conflict.  A noble aim to be sure, but one that overlooks the fact that social enterprise is in the eye of the beholder. Hamas, for example, has long used business to fund its public aims.   In some circles this activity is routinely described as charity or social entrepreneurship, while the U.S. government would consider much of it to be terrorist money laundering.  I've heard any number of commentators opine that initiatives undertaken by organizations such as Hamas are mere shams, but that begs the question of whose perspective determines what constitutes an authentic social venture.

This isn't just an academic exercise--social enterprise is a movement that holds itself out as a more rigorous alternative to traditional charity, but if the fundamental criterion for what counts as social entrepreneurship is whatever we happen to like, the concept objectively breaks down.  We talk a lot about creating social value but say precious little about how to define what that means--a sign, perhaps, that it may be a question as intractable as the Middle East crisis itself.