Moses Lee

The Often Missing Component of a BoP Venture: Humility

IndiaMarket“We must imagine a world which combines in equal measure economic development and eradication of poverty, ecological stewardship and social justice. We must harness the forces of globalization to create this outcome. We have to imagine this future. If we cannot imagine it, we cannot create it. We cannot create this world if we cannot imagine it. I do hope that we can bring to this task our collective imagination, passion, courage, humanity, humility and intellect. We cannot expect less of ourselves.?- CK Prahalad

Last year, I had the chance to listen to CK Prahalad give his lecture entitled, “Democratizing Commerce” at the University of Michigan. He urged the audience to push for a globalization that benefits all, particularly the poor. I listened with great intent and thought that his final comments of the talk were quite profound, particularly related to BoP strategies.
A few thoughts on what Prahalad suggests as the building blocks for business leaders seeking to create a more inclusive global economy:

  • Imagination: Creating BoP ventures that serve the poor entails having the eyes to see what could be in an environment often neglected and left for dead.
  • Passion: This is the fuel that keeps BoP entrepreneurs up late at night, fighting against all odds, and refusing to bow down to the complexities and challenges of creating enterprises that serve and employ the poor.
  • Courage: When entering communities of the poor, a BoP entrepreneur must be willing to accept the inherent risk that comes with serving the poor, seeing the failure that may come as a step in the right direction rather than a signal to give up and go home.
  • Humanity: Whether you are the privileged elite at the ToP or the poorest of the poor at the BoP, we all share one thing in common: our humanity. Since the beginning of time, we humans have lived in the pursuit of purpose, significant and meaningful relationships, fulfillment, happiness, and longevity. The fact that some of us have been given unbelievable opportunities and privilege is grace. By grace I mean that which we do not deserve but we receive anyway. It is critical in our pursuit of poverty alleviation that we from the ToP develop what Jacqueline Novogratz from Acumen Fund calls “moral imagination,” or the ability to empathize with the poor and to place ourselves in their shoes so that we can “make tough decisions in the name of the greater good.”
  • Intellect: Bill Gates, in his Harvard commencement speech in 2007, reflected, “The crucial thing is to never stop thinking and working–and never do what we did with malaria and tuberculosis in the 20th century–which is to surrender to complexity and quit.” The issue of poverty is highly complex and needs our collective thinking and brainpower in order to bring forth true transformation.

Now, I’d like to expound more on the subject of humility because I think this is the one characteristic that is the most elusive, as it cannot be obtained through effort, work, or education. The reason it is so difficult to obtain is because the mere desire for it precludes one from having it. Have you ever heard a person state, “I have finally become a humble person!” The statement alone is a signal that humility has not been gained.

At lunch the other day, a few of my colleagues and I were discussing a particular BoP venture and a comment that slipped out was that the poor in this particular market were not particularly “bright.” The comment was innocuous, but it exposed our arrogance towards the poor and called for a moment of reflection. One of my thoughts was that we from the ToP are often more proud and arrogant towards the poor than we think.

William Easterly, in his book The White Man’s Burden, writes: “A Planner thinks he already knows the answers. A Searcher admits he doesn’t know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional and technological factors.”

Though he doesn’t directly state it, Easterly is talking about the difference between the proud and the humble. Humility says that what matters most is improving the lives of the poor. Pride says that I have a solution that the poor desperately need. Humility calls us to roll up our sleeves, to live and breathe among the poor. Pride says to serve from afar.

I appreciate what was written about Paul Polak, author of Out of Poverty in a recent economist article: “He is happiest muddying his boots on thousands of one-acre farms, marching up hillsides to inspect irrigation tanks, or loitering in a market, measuring the shelf-space that stallholders devote to different vegetables. He scorns poverty experts who profess to know more about the subject than the people who live it.”

If we are really to take up CK Prahalad’s challenge and to bring long lasting change to our world, we will have to dig deep and address the pride and arrogance that is so pervasive in our lives. But what is the first step to becoming a humble people? I’ll leave this to one of my favorite authors and scholars from Oxford, CS Lewis:

Don’t imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he won’t be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who’s always telling you that, of course, he’s nobody. Probably all you’ll think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him, it will be because you feel a bit envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He won’t be thinking about himself at all. There I must stop. If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you’re not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.