Understanding the poor?

I’ve been neglecting my little corner of the internet these past couple of weeks… Blogging can be a serious “monkey on your back” situation, and the more I put it off, the less motivated I become to write. Also, the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of writing and editing at work every day probably compounds this… Anyway, poor excuses. There is a lot I want to share, like for example (and in no particular order), my impressions of Peru, the value of a trillion dollars, Obama’s greying hair and the ICC indictment of President Bashir (great article by Alex de Waal, who is The Authority on Darfur).

But I won’t… Not today, at least (although chances are I will never write about Obama’s hair). One of my colleagues forwarded an article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review a few weeks back, noting that the last couple paragraphs completely jive with our organization’s mission (hurray! I agree with the conclusions of the article, and it gave me a warm fuzzy feeling that I spend my days working for an organization that embraces those principles) 

The author, Aneel Karnani, makes a lot of good points in this article called “Romanticizing the Poor”. He lays to rest a lot of misconceptions about the business opportunities that exist at the bottom of the pyramid – his main thesis is that poor people are not necessarily aspiring entrepreneurs (as many advocates of microfinance see it), nor are they particularly discerning consumers (as corporations like to portray). Excerpt:

Beneath these beliefs in the market readiness of poor people lies a more basic assumption: people in dire straits are well-informed and rational economic actors. Yet this view denies the fact that poor people often act against their own self-interest. Of course, wealthier people sometimes do so, too. But poor people face far worse consequences for their bad choices than do more affluent people. And so romanticized views of BOP people as value-conscious consumers and resilient entrepreneurs are not only false, but also harmful. These views lead states to build too few legal, regulatory, and social mechanisms to protect the poor, as well as to rely too heavily on market solutions to poverty.

To support his views, he makes a number of compelling (and honest) arguments that deconstruct a “romanticized” vision of the poor, which rests on the assumption that they are rational economic actors. Of course, because he’s talking about billions of people in a general way, these are clearly sweeping generalizations – but like all generalizations, there is a lot of truth to what he’s saying. 

He notes, for example, that people who live in poverty tend to spend inordinate amounts of money on celebrations, festivals and what I will call, broadly speaking, escapism (he cites a recent field study in Sri Lanka which reveals that more than 10% of poor male respondents regularly spend their entire incomes on alcohol). This really resonates with me – I am still unable to understand why Liberian refugees in Ghana needed to have a costly “Miss Liberia” pageant, or make t-shirts for every last occasion of the year (you essentially cannot be a “real” organization or club until you have a t-shirt with your motto and logo on it). That always struck me as an immense waste of resources, particularly in a context of complete and utter need – you wouldn’t be pressed to find someone telling you about their t-shirt order and in the same breath asking you for money to buy food/water/go to the clinic.

I remember trying to organize a half day workshop on nutrition for the staff of the school I was volunteering at – I drew up a budget, and discussed it with my local colleague. He pointed out that my food/refreshment line item was quite small – indeed, I had only accounted for the purchase of water and some basic snacks. He explained that “no one would show up” unless I had the event catered and everyone got a “soft drink”. Yes – catered. In the end, most of the costs of the workshop were food related. I thought this was because I was white and therefore incredibly rich, of course, that people expected this. But time after time, I heard about these “catered workshops” during my time in the refugee camp.

Another trend which Karnani points to is how corporations take advantage of the lack of regulations in order to market products that are detrimental to a person’s health – such as liquor in very small (and therefore very affordable) packages. This brings up another memory: small sachets of rum that would litter the ground of the refugee camp. Except they weren’t being made by large foreign corporations but by smart local entrepreneurs – these are the guys who are really taking advantage of business opportunities at the bottom of the pyramid. This is a point I disagree on slightly – Karnani says: “It is not only tobacco and alcohol companies that exploit the weaknesses of the poor: Even Unilever, a consumer products company, preys on the anxieties of disadvantaged people” Umm… wait: it’s not only tobacco and alcohol companies marketing to the poor that exploit weaknesses – that’s what every single company that markets a non-essential product does!! Everyone on the planet is subject to shameless marketing, not just the poor. The difference is, though, is that I know I don’t “need” a blanket with arm holes (even though I know a lot of people who would fight me on this, but bear with me). At the bottom of the pyramid, as Karnani writes,

” …yet these advocates do not acknowledge that the poor lack the education, information, and other economic, cultural, and social capital that would allow them to take advantage of—and shield themselves against—the vagaries of the free market.”

I think he nails it with that sentence.

I really think that it ultimately boils down to education – what I’m talking about though, goes much beyond the Millenium Development Goal of providing primary education to all the world’s children by 2015 (that ain’t happening, by the way). In my mind, “education” comprises formal education at all levels, including the promotion of university or technical degrees, as well as skills and knowledge transfer. For micro, small and medium size enterprises, good leadership and sound management are essential for success – neither of these skills is born out of thin air, and individuals need to somehow acquire them. A direct result of this is the increased premium places on capacity building and technical assistance as crucial complements of financing for any informal organization or business in the developing world.

As Karnani accurately notes, for individuals to “take advantage of and shield themselves from the vagaries of the free market”, a strong regulatory framework is imperative. Consumers need to be protected and industries promoted, controlled and appropriately incentivized – isn’t that what we ask from our own governments? (well, perhaps Rush Limbaugh disagrees…) 

An interesting and rather intense debate took place over at Nextbillion.net regarding this piece – one of the scholars that Karnani criticizes in his piece, Al Hammond, responds to Karnani in no uncertain terms. I highly recommend checking out the vitriolic back and forth. Here‘s a softer response to Karnani’s article.

Karnani’s article is a must-read – as my good friend CPL said, “that’s one of the best most honest pieces I have read in a long time.”

Oh, and here are a couple of photos from my trip to Peru

From 2009 pics

This man owns and runs a cheese factory/shop in the mountain town of Cajamarca, Peru. He started his business about 10 years ago, and now sells cheese in different regions of the country – his marketing strategy was developed with the help of a local economic development organization. He told us his story and showed us around his facilities, describing which challenges he faced as a small business owner – very enlightening. I’ll admit the cheese wasn’t really all that great (I’m from France… I have discerning taste in cheese), but on the other hand the dulce de leche (displayed in the center of the photo), was amazingly good. 

From 2009 pics

And this is “Lima-by-Night”, viewed from the neighborhood of Barranco (I want to live there). Yes, it’s a ginormous illuminated crucifix. 

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