More Synchronicity and the Bottom of the Pyramid

BottomOfPyramid 2.jpg

The synchronicity starts with grading final papers for my two classes at Marlboro College all weekend. The quality of the student’s offerings has made this norma chore a satisfying experience. Two of the students chose to write about Stuart Hart and C. K. Prahalad’s concept of the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP). In this strategic model for generally large multinational corporations, the four billion people living at low income levels are seen as a virtually untapped new market for corporations, especially those in the business of offering consumer products. The assets of each individual may be very small, but the aggregate for this economic slice is 9-10 trillion dollars.

Hart and Prahalad have been criticized for promoting a strategic model that is insensitive to the particular needs of this market, which is very different from that forming the bulk of the firms’ current business. I won’t dwell on this as there is plenty of analysis already out there. See for example, Landrum, Nancy E. (2007) Advancing the “Base of the Pyramid Debate. Strategic Management Review, 1(1), 12.

The next piece of synchronicity comes from a course I am co-leading at my Institute for Learning in Retirement. The broad theme is about the way reality shows up in the modern world and, in particular, how it gets filtered through the lens of Cartersian dualism and the reductionistic techniques we use to access knowledge about the world. Part of the syllabus has been an excursion into Martin Heidegger’s thinking. The last fragment of his work we read had to do with the role of art and artists in revealing the meaningfulness of the world to us. As is much of Heidegger’ philosophy, this idea seems remote and hard to accept.

But then, the third piece of synchronicity showed up today. I took a break from paper grading to finish a novel for a book club meeting tomorrow. The book is Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. It’s about two women, a young Nigerian girl who had never left her small village before, Little Bee, and a British lady, Sarah, who encountered each other under horrifying circumstance in Africa and then met sometime later in Sarah’s home.

At one point Little Bee is talking to herself about how she would explain life in England to “the girls back home.” She is sitting in the living room of Sarah’s house musing about the coffee table and the wood floor, and how no one at home would understand how a table is made from coffee.

Imagine how tired I would become, telling my story to the girls from back home. This is the real reason no one tells us Africans anything. It is not because anyone wants to keep my continent in ignorance. It is because nobody has the time to sit down and explain the first world from first principles. Or maybe you would like to but can’t. Your culture has become so sophisticated, like a computer, or a drug you take for a headache. You can use it, but you can’t explain how it works. Certainly not to girls who stack up their firewood against the side of the house.

This passage illustrates to me the basic flaw in the BoP concept. No matter how hard a firm tries to understand the new market, even with a lot of participation and dialogue, as Hart suggests, the cultures are just too distant. The values and norms coming from the corporation are likely to push out the indigenous set simply due to an imbalance in power. Life may appear better through the lens of standard of living, but something important to flourishing always seems to get lost. I discovered that art in the form of literature can, indeed, reveal the world in a way that analysis cannot.

| | Comments (2)

« Previous Entry   Next Entry »

2 Comments

David M Carter said:

Indeed John, the BoP mentality assumes the developing world (horrible identifier) needs corporatists to save them. This is convenient because it also allows capitalists to feel better about the destructive work they are doing. More importantly, what gets missed is what the peoples of the developing world can teach the rest of us about sustainable living. The Native Americans (another bad identifier), for example, in many ways lived a subsistence existence. Yet, their fundamental cultural connection to the web of life is something that we need to revisit and tap if we are to discover a flourishing path to sustainability.

Ezekiel Ooko Omungo said:

The bottom of the pyramid concept is very relevant moreso to the developing nations whose majority of the citizens are not that affluent.
Companies should focus at the bottom of the pyramid. In this way, they will help in one way or another to sustain lives while at the same time reap the benefits.