Saturday, March 12, 2011

NGO and BOP – a Shared Ignorance

I was in Dakar last month ahead of the World Social Forum and on my way back I attended a one-day workshop in Paris on the Base of the Pyramid whose keynote speaker was Cornell professor Stuart Hart who coined the term in the early 2000’s with CK Prahalad who passed away prematurely last year. As I was telling my colleagues in Dakar about the BOP conference in Paris, none of them – yes, none of them – was familiar with the concept of Base of the Pyramid… They all happen to work for national platforms (i.e. country-wide associations) of NGOs, most of which are involved in social and economic development issues, so they know something about those who live at the base of the pyramid - even though the BOP notion is foreign to them…

I found that disconnect truly extraordinary. Those working on BOP-related issues firmly believe that the key to a sustainable social and economic development lies with BOP strategies. Thus, their “theory of change” is that through products or services that they will have jointly designed BOP populations will rise out of poverty.

The NGO community has similar beliefs about the need to empower developing nations’ populations and “teach them how to fish”, while making sure that the enabling context in the form of a democratic government and the essentials for development (infrastructure, education, healthcare, functioning institutions) are in place.

Therefore, two very large constituencies working on development issues, the NGO world and the business and academic sectors (mostly corporate folks, academics, and students attended the BOP workshop in Paris) seem to ignore each other’s strategies for poverty alleviation and sustainable development though – and this makes it even more striking - those are not that different from each other…

And, do not think that the NGO people are more narrow-minded and ignorant than their academic and corporate colleagues. None of the people with whom I spoke in Paris had attended the World Social Forum and, if they knew exactly what the World Economic Forum in Davos was (I used the reference to Davos to help them understand what Dakar was about, i.e. the “counter-Davos” so to speak), very few knew that something big was going on in Dakar (where over 50,000 people from around the world gathered), let alone took the time to visit.

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