The Business Solution to Poverty: the role of the citizen sector

Business Solution to Poverty

In The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers, authors Paul Polak and Mal Warwick believe that, unlike government and philanthropy, business is uniquely capable of solving poverty. Still, they allow room for others to pitch in.

The authors ascribe a supporting role to the “citizen sector,” which they define to include foundations, trusts, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs).

Polak and Warwick see the citizen sector as

  • Organizing to monitor government, highlighting its failures and errors.
  • Policing predatory business activities. Presumes that government either hasn’t established proper regulation, or does not enforce it.
  • Pioneering innovative, market-based service-delivery models.
  • Building civil society

I like the idea that this is a sector. These are all worthy activities. But, do they really belong to the citizen sector? Consider:

  • Monitoring government presumes that government needs monitoring. That’s probably not a bad presumption. From my cultural perspective, though, this role should predominantly reside with the press. I consider the press separate from a citizen sector, even in the age of bloggers.
  • Policing predatory business activities presumes that government either hasn’t established proper business regulation, or does not enforce regulations already established. In areas of the Global South, this could well be true. But private citizens usually have no policing powers. This might be better stated as monitoring, like the previous item, which then leads back to the press.
  • Pioneering innovative, market-based service-delivery models is exactly the poverty solution that the authors have contended the citizen sector can’t do. This is a contradiction to the entire premise of the book. If only the business sector can truly create the products and the needed large-scale manufacturing and distribution to solve poverty, then why should the citizen sector be involved in this? I don’t think they are suggesting that citizens do the innovation work and then business reap the rewards for scaling those innovations.
  • Building civil society. The term “civil society” has a range of connotations, from the nuclear family all the way up to constitutional elements like freedom of speech and independence of the judiciary. All the connotations are positive and could probably help alleviate the conditions of poverty, but making a bullet point of this seems overly broad. This also seems potentially self-referential, as in “the citizen sector should focus on building the citizen sector.”

Since I believe that man is a social creature who builds community for the betterment of all, defining a role in poverty reduction for today’s citizen’s sector makes sense to me. I think that definition probably deserves more thought and space than what is dedicated to it in Part 1 of The Business Solution to Poverty.

What do you think the role of ordinary citizen should be in reducing poverty?

(The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers and other books mentioned in this blog are available in the bookstore.)

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