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Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation

Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.

Allegra Day, Oxford MBA at the Saïd Business School gives her perspective on the  Skoll World Forum session “Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation”.

In the Opening Plenary of this year’s Forum, Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam International revealed the fault lines in the capitalist model that have enabled 8 men to own as much wealth as half of humanity. Winnie was unequivocal that the system is rigged against the majority and a new economic model is needed that is fairer and more sustainable for all. This echoes a theme that has reverberated across the Forum: business is central to poverty alleviation, but the current legal structure and incentives underpinning big business need to change.

Throughout the week, we have heard from organisations championing this change through investments in staff, suppliers and innovation. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, spoke of providing a living wage for his employees, one fifth of whom are refugees. During the Business as a Catalyst for Poverty Alleviation Panel, Charlotte Oades of Coca-Cola outlined the company’s aim of supporting 5 million women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and eventually enter the supply chain of Coca-Cola and other companies through the 5by20 initiative. Fellow Panellist Cherie Blair CBE, QC spoke of her Foundation’s work with financial institutions in markets where women are viewed as “risky” customers training local staff to understand that women are generally good borrowers and should be considered for loans.

But is all this enough? Those spearheading the B Corp movement would probably say no. Panellist and Co-Founder of B Lab Company Bart Houlahan reminded us that in many places, directors are liable under company law for not returning maximum profit. The B Corp model offers a solution: a new legal structure enabling directors to incorporate community engagement, worker involvement and environmental footprint objectives alongside profit maximisation. We now need greater adoption of the B Corp model and adaption of the model to suit multi-national corporations. Alongside this, Ms Blair and Mr Houlahan called for greater education of bankers, investors and lawyers to understand the changing role of business.

Beyond legal reform, the Panellists described two key ways in which businesses can play their role in tackling poverty. The first is more support for women-led businesses in addition to women-owned businesses, given the challenges associated with ownership of assets for many women. Panellist C D Glin of the US African Development Foundation described this as a critical tool for economic growth that dovetails with the safety and security aims of the US Government. The second is support with scaling up enterprises. Ms Oades spoke of the role Coca-Cola can play in scaling enterprises through identifying and sharing learnings across its network that can be adapted to a local context.

During the Forum’s Skoll Awards Night, Bono said that capitalism is “not immoral but amoral: we have to tell it what to do.” Conversations at the Forum have made clear that we as leaders, consumers and human beings must challenge businesses to modernise and innovate in line with moral and ethical standards to create more common ground for us all to share.

Follow Allegra: @legshd