Paternalism and the Mirage
Professor Karnani’s primary critique of Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, is that it focuses multinationals on the extreme poor as consumers. Instead Karnani offers that “…we should emphasize buying from the poor. By far the best way to alleviate poverty is to raise the income of the poor.”
This is not a new idea, nor is it at odds with the idea of marketing innovative products toward the poor. Karnani’s arguments against the poor as consumers often boil down to naked paternalism:
“Holding the poor consumer’s income constant, the only way he can purchase the newly available product is to divert expenditure from some other product. If he is a ‘rational’ consumer, this will increase his welfare. However, as a practical matter, this is unlikely to result in a significant change in his poverty situation. Additionally, if for some reason, the poor consumer is irrational in his resource allocation choice, the BOP initiative might even result in reducing his welfare.”
“The poor surely have a right to buy televisions; the issue is whether it is in their self interest to buy televisions.”
So if there is a risk that poor consumers might make irrational buying decisions, who should help guide them? The United Nations? The dictator of that poor country? A local tribal leader? Religious clerics? In an ideal market, consumer choice is best left to… the consumer.
Professor Karnani emphasizes that the government should be focused on consumer protection. But we have to remember that consumer protection laws in the West have taken a century to build. Should developing nations that can’t even deliver basic sanitation, infrastructure and public health shift their focus to developing consumer protection laws? Consumer protection is a worthy goal, but it is ultimately citizens who must hold their own governments accountable when the forces in the free market are perceived as harmful to their society or environment.
Karnanai also takes issue with Prahalad’s example of a skin whitening cream that was marketed to women in India by international giant Unilever. Karnani blames it for it entrenching women’s disempowerment, writing that:
“The BOP proposition is not satisfied with just giving the company the right to sell skin lightening cream. It goes further and commends the company for empowering women and helping eradicate poverty. This is an intellectually and morally problematic position.”
He also notes that Unilver’s marketing campaign was failure:
“The All India Democratic Women’s Association campaigned against this and another advertisement as being racist, discriminatory, and an affront to women’s dignity.
“Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of Information and Broadcasting, said ‘Fair & Lovely cannot be supported because the advertising is demeaning to women and women’s movement’. Unilever has since discontinued these two advertisements in India.”
Karanani advocates that we preemptively limit consumer choice because the poor might make economic decisions that seem irrational from a Western perspective. But it was by giving consumers a choice in India that they considered the role of women in Indian society, and market forces ultimately drove Unilever to pull the ads. Would Karnani consider poor customers to have been rational economic actors in that case?
Paternalism Meets Micro-Credit
Karnani also finds harm in Prahalad’s example of Casas Bahia. This Brazilian superstore facilitates the purchase of high-quality appliances by offering credit to poor consumers who have unpredictable income streams.
Karnani argues that:
“The BOP proposition again falls prey to a fallacy: providing credit does not change the affordability of a product. The finance term for Casas Bahia ranges from four months to one year, with an average of six months. All that the financing scheme does is provide instant gratification at a price. For the privilege of this instant gratification, he pays an interest rate of over 4% per month. People with ‘low and unpredictable income’ would be well advised to save and pay in cash; this will enable them to do a better job of comparison shopping too. It is not surprising that many of Casas Bahia’s customers do not understand well how to unbundle the purchase price and the interest cost and instead focus on the monthly installment payment.”
Using credit in a developing nation is rarely about instant gratification. Village groups in West Africa without access to micro-credit schemes organized themselves and made small loans to group members for the monthly interest rate of about 10%. These loans helped fund medicine for sick children or seeds for cash crops. Poverty tends to produce desperately pragmatic people. Would Mr. Karnani advocate saving money throughout the rainy season only to buy seeds for a cash crop to be planted the next year? Doesn’t it depend on the rate of return? And who is best able to judge when to extend credit?
If a poor Brazilian consumer buys an appliance on credit, isn’t it possible that this person might become more productive as a result? Washing machines liberate people from having to spend the day washing by hand. Gas stoves are more efficient that searching for firewood.
You don’t have to question whether someone will make the right rational economic choices just because they are poor. I agree that government regulation is needed, but we should not discourage the private sector from extending credit just because poor consumers might buy something they don’t need. If someone defaults on the loan at Casas Bahia, I’m guessing they won’t be issued more credit.
Corruption - Total instances found: 0
Unfortunately this heading applies to a search for the word “corruption” in the PDF of Professor Karnani’s paper, not to the situation the facing the world’s poor. Transparency International recognizes that this is one of the gravest problems facing the poor. Corruption hurts the poor both as consumers (by distorting prices) and producers (by discouraging investment). Neither Karnani and Prahalad offer much insight into how to remedy this.
In fact, Karnani hardly even acknowledges the difficulty hurdle that corruption presents in establishing well-functioning institutions needed to turn the poor into producers. In attacking Prahalad, he seems to lose sight of the fact that billions of the world’s poor live in countries with failed governments.
“By emphatically focusing on the private sector, the BOP proposition detracts from the imperative to correct the failure of the government to fulfill its traditional and accepted functions such as public safety, basic education, public health, and infra-structure.”
Karnani and BOP advocates both want to see improvements in governance. Both want to improve the conditions facing the poor. It’s only a question of how to reach that noble goal. Making a market at the BOP gives multinationals a stake in the improvement. Surely sophisticated market analysts at the world’s corporations would recognize that a well-educated, healthy population of consumers purchases more goods?
We could, of course, step back and try to figure out what is going wrong in the failed states of the world. We just need to fix the infrastructure, education, eliminate AIDS, and end epidemic corruption. This is not a novel idea. The World Bank, UN and countless other academics, advisors and NGOs have been trying to achieve this for decades. As soon as we have that all figured out, will Karanani let companies sell approved goods to the poor?
Karnani concludes that:
Private companies should try to pursue marketing to the poor. However, the profit opportunities are modest at best and we suggest a cautious approach. Large companies that require scale economies should be even more hesitant.
Why ward off large companies? Free market innovation is an invaluable tool. Companies should try to earn a profit in developing nations. Many will fail as thousands of companies before have failed in rich nations. Just don’t wave off the LifeStraws and PlayPumps of the world while we wait for developing nations to create consumer protection laws up to our standard.
Karnani is correct to focus on establishing institutions that will help the poor earn more income. But while we wait, why not try the BOP approach?