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The missing ingredient in SA's COVID recovery


South Australia’s post-pandemic recovery strategy needs a new element – one that requires a change of mindset, argue David Pearson and Amy Orange.

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One of the clearest lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout is that we need to stop thinking about social and economic issues as being mutually exclusive. They are intimately connected.

Too often, our efforts to address the economic and social challenges are dealt with separately, in their own lanes or silos.

The impact of COVID-19 has taught us that a threat to our health is a threat to our economic prosperity; it has always been thus, this is just a lesson that we have been collectively and painfully reminded of.

Social enterprise is a business model that has always sought to break down these silos, to bridge the gap between economic and social problems using market-driven solutions. Social enterprises are businesses that trade to intentionally tackle social problems, improve communities, provide people access to employment and training, or help the environment. But first and foremost, social enterprises are businesses – they generate the majority of their revenue through trade.

There is a hugely impactful, but still emerging social enterprise sector in South Australia, and this offers significant opportunities, in particular to address one of our principal challenges in not just recovering from COVID-19 but in taking the opportunity to do better – reducing our high unemployment rate.

While as a country Australia’s unemployment rate has not reached the double-digit crisis level predicted by economists early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains high, as does the underemployment rate (those who are employed, but who want or need more hours). Here in South Australia we have consistently held the unenviable title of having amongst the highest unemployment rate in the country.

For far too many young people, a soul-destroying high youth unemployment rate means they are finding themselves further entrapped in a cycle of disadvantage and inequity that will become harder to break as they age.

A recent analysis found a disproportionate number of job losses in SA have occurred in our blue collar suburbs compared to our more wealthier suburbs, further widening the already entrenched inequality that keeps people and families living in poverty, reliant on welfare and unable to find their way out.

Women have similarly  been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. A recent report from Women’s Working Centre SA found that just under half of the nearly 300 women under 30 surveyed reported feeling very anxious, insecure and discouraged about current and future job prospects, as well as other serious concerns about increased pressures on the home front, including domestic violence and worsening mental health. Unemployment has also hit women in regional South Australia, with the Riverland and South East regions experiencing unprecedented levels of unemployment, with the majority of job losses affecting women.

There are plenty of other groups and communities that are also feeling the pain of COVID-19 induced job losses: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, people of migrant and refugee background, people with disability – all people who faced significant barriers to employment even before COVID-19 came along, and are now even further behind in the jobs queue.

We all know that unemployment is bad, and that COVID-19 has exacerbated this, but social enterprise offers an alternative way to address this. It offers a powerful and cost-effective option to create employment opportunities for our most disadvantaged, equipping them with the support and skills they need for economic independence.

The recent South Australian Government budget highlights and funds a range of measures to support existing and emerging industries. Despite many other States working to seize this opportunity and support the growth of the Social Enterprise sector, South Australia to date has not. Social enterprise remains the missing ingredient in our COVID-19 recovering in South Australia.

Social Traders estimates there are around 20,000 social enterprises in Australia, contributing up to 3 per cent of GDP and creating jobs for over 300,000 Australians. Accurate estimates for South Australia are harder to come by – the research just hasn’t yet been done nor the resources allocated to gather this important data.

The South Australian social enterprise community is coming together and has formalised through a number of efforts to provide a voice for social enterprises, capacity building opportunities, efforts to improve access to finance and access to a national social procurement platform to connect social enterprises to paying customers across business and government.

Like all businesses, social enterprises need customers to be successful – and with South Australia’s $11 billion procurement spend across State Government alone, businesses, universities and governments can play a critical role in building successful social enterprises and jobs for people who face barriers to employment, simply by directing a proportion of their spend to social enterprise.

Take for example the leading SA certified social enterprise GOGO Events – a business that employs people who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness. They’ve been engaged to help with all kinds of events with everything from Christmas parties, to major corporate events such as the SA Food and Beverage Awards, all the way through to supporting elements of one of SA’s largest social enterprises – the Adelaide Fringe Festival.

Many businesses, universities, non-government organisations and government departments have catering and events budgets. Social procurement simply requires organisations to think about how they spend these budgets in a way that not only allows them to buy, or procure, what they need – but also help provide employment opportunities, whether it’s for those at risk of homelessness as GOGO Events does, or other forms of social impact created through the thousands of other social enterprises who offer products and services to generate positive social outcomes.

While social procurement seems like a simple concept, it does require a shift in mindset and practice to assess goods and services in terms of social value as well as risk and price. We only need to look at what Victoria and Queensland are doing to know that government policies and strategies for social enterprise do significantly help to build traction, awareness, support and buy-in across multiple sectors.

In 2018, the Victorian Labor Government launched Australia’s first social procurement policy to grow the sector and increase its impact. The Queensland Labor Government followed in 2020 with an announcement that they are investing an unprecedented $8m into a Social Enterprise Jobs Fund as a way of supporting the sector and creating jobs for some of that state’s most disadvantaged people. New South Wales Liberal Government is stepping up their support for social enterprise and social procurement, signing a deal with Social Traders in August 2020 to make it easier for the state government departments to procure products and services from social enterprises through their normal spending.

It’s time for South Australia to join this rapidly growing movement to create jobs and impact through social enterprise as a post-pandemic recovery strategy. This strategy will require a greater alignment of our social and economic development efforts, by governments, businesses, universities and charities all working with the social enterprise sector to embrace these innovative business model, and this way of doing business to ensure we are getting as much economic and social value for every dollar spent in our state – irrespective of who is spending it.

COVID-19 has shown us what can be achieved when we are forced to think differently and do differently, and social enterprise presents a real opportunity to accelerate and amplify our economic and social recovery together.

Amy Orange is Co-Founder of Collab4Good and Social Procurement Lead SA for Social Traders.

David Pearson is an Industry Adjunct at the UniSA Australian Alliance for Social Enterprise and CEO of the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness.

Both are past winners of InDaily’s 40 under 40 program.

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