The best countries to be a social entrepreneur 2019

Changing the world for girls? Start in India

by Safeena Husain, Executive Director, Educate Girls
Three million girls are out of school in India - a huge challenge but also an opportunity for social entrepreneurs to try new approaches

If you are a social entrepreneur with ambition, you want to work in a country where your efforts can have a huge incremental effect.  If you want to change the world for girls, then India has to be where you start. 

India still has some of the worst indicators for girls’ empowerment and education, it has the highest number of child brides in the world and patriarchal attitudes that continue to assert that a goat is an asset and a girl is a liability.

And yet, you also have to have an enabling environment conducive to disruptive social change at the intersection between government, private sector and civil society. In India we have both, and that is the reason I returned home in 2007.

The organisation I founded, Educate Girls has been operational in India for just under 10 years and in that time we have enrolled 120,000 girls into government schools, girls who ordinarily would be excluded from getting an education.  We have an “army” of 7,000 young champions for girls’ education working across villages in some of the worst gender gap districts in the country.

The challenge is enormous, and our work to date is still on a relatively small scale, but we believe that in India we have a balance between need and enabling environment and with an entrepreneurial approach we should be ambitious enough to solve problems rather than just alleviate suffering.


For us now the challenge is not how we increase our activities and grow as an organization, it is how we remain accountable to every girl we work with, how we ensure we deliver quality as we scale, and how we close the gender gap for good leaving lasting change in every village.

As an entrepreneur in India what you really want to see is your work affect change at scale, and for me the most exciting challenge is how to work within the government system and have government adopt our approaches nationally.

We have successfully worked in partnership with the government of Rajasthan for nine years now and recently signed an MOU with the Madhya Pradesh State. Our hope is that the most marginalized children across the country (more often than not the girls) will benefit from our work because of these partnerships, and that we will see a step change in education rather than a parallel approach that will not necessarily change things for future generations.  

Although there is increased local funding in India with growth in private philanthropy, the new CSR regulations through The Companies Act, and an increase in impact investing, what I am more excited about in India is the appetite for looking at new ways of funding and not just an increased quantum. In order to meet the new sustainable development goals for education, the annual funding gap globally is estimated at $39 billion dollars.

Evidence however demonstrates that increased funding in primary education does not lead directly to improved learning outcomes. Throwing more money at the problem alone is not going to work and that is where our Development Impact Bond (DIB) comes in (recently written about in this blog by Ashoka).


Globally there is discussion both for and against the idea of results based financing in sectors such as education and social welfare. In India there is precedent and the country is already championed as the largest outcomes payer in the world after the World Bank’s results based support of the national sanitation programme Clean India Mission (SBA).  Our outcomes based contract is currently a relatively small proof of concept (15,000 children), but a year into implementation we are very positive about its potential.

Under the DIB we have made lasting changes to the way we train and performance manage our staff in order to allow them the flexibility to innovate and be more creative about how they deliver results.

Rather than holding them to successfully deliver on an action plan, they work to understand what strategies they need to employ to enroll a girl whose father is standing in the way of her education, or to support a first generation learner in the classroom. Whereas before we would keep data at a management level we now share data with field staff so they can see how they are performing and we can make rapid changes to our strategies and improve results.  

By bringing a different level of accountability to grant funding, we would hope funders will make larger commitments and that NGOs will deliver better results. A lot of people feel that social entrepreneurship is about delivering a market based solution, but to me this is what entrepreneurship is about. Money needs to put to work better and problems need to be solved for good.

Although our priority is the three million girls in India who are out of school, we are convinced that what we are learning in India has the potential to influence funders and implementers of girl-focused programmes across the world. India is not only a country that needs and nurtures social entrepreneurs it should be seen as a test bed for innovation that can have a wider impact.

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