The project

Over the last decade, the notion that the private sector can stimulate much-needed development in the world’s poorest regions has gained increased prominence. Today, it is often business – whether transnational corporations, small and medium- sized enterprises, or for-profit social enterprises — that is cast as the engine of development, one that can deliver win-win outcomes for both the world’s poor and the financial bottom line.

Within this context, the BoP approach is often heralded as a sea change in business-led strategies to development. BoP initiatives that aim to deliver social development outcomes in the fields of public health, livelihoods and energy are gaining momentum, championed by the writings of C.K. Prahalad (“The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”), Jonathan Porritt (“Capitalism as if the World Matters”), Matthew Bishop and Michael Green (“Philanthrocapitalism”) among others, and by investments from development institutions (eg. World Bank, Asian Development Bank, USAID, DFID), and global venture funds (eg. the Acumen Fund, Rockfeller Foundation).

The BoP approach is often described as a way for business to bring ‘social’ products to under-served markets in developing countries, converting the four billion people living in poverty into ‘consumers’. Yet BoP approaches are diverse. They may serve the BoP “demographic” as consumers, producers or sellers/entrepreneurs, and incorporate goods produced by branded multinationals or local producers. They incorporate firms of varying sizes and levels of capitalization, spanning sectors from food and toiletries to telecommunications and energy. They may include transnationals like Unilever distributing products through ‘micro-entrepreneurs’, or social enterprises such as Living Goods and Freeplay Energy promoting low-cost health and energy solutions. In all cases, however, they share a collective vision that business can generate a range of development outcomes – from gender empowerment to disease eradication – by engaging with those living at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

While private sector enthusiasts within development agencies and corporations tend to celebrate the emancipatory potential of BoP approaches (Prahalad 2004; London and Hart 2011), a number of urgent questions need to be examined about the production, marketing, and financing of markets for social goods to poor consumers, about the impacts on local production, markets and workers’ lives, and about the potentially uneven distribution of social goods mediated through markets.

In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis there has been mounting public discussion about equity and the distribution of wealth in the world’s advanced capitalist economies, and about whether unfettered markets can bring prosperity to the world’s poorest populations (Hart 2010). In the UK and beyond, the notion of ‘responsible capitalism’ has emerged as a touchstone for politicians, whose calls for an inclusive capitalism have moved to the forefront of policy debates. Equally, the legitimacy of for-profit interventions will inevitably be challenged if they fail to realize claims of a double bottom line and if their benefits flow disproportionately to a small percentage of stakeholders. Such questions are of paramount importance to development policy makers and practitioners as they champion large- and small-scale entrepreneurship as solutions to poverty.

While the socio-economic, political and ethical implications of BoP business interventions are many, analyses of BoP systems have been largely restricted to business and management studies, which focus less on the implications for development than on how the private sector can maximize profits by aligning economic performance with social objectives.

This project seeks to address this gap by creating a space for new thinking, approaches, research methodologies, and evidence that critically engage with the development implications of the BoP model, and examine the distribution of gains and losses and risks and vulnerabilities in BoP markets. We seek to ask how such models work in practice, what processes of inclusion and exclusion they give rise to, and whether they can deliver development that is both ethical and sustainable.