Rapid industrialization in countries such as China and India in the past 20 years has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and exemplified the power of private enterprise to drive economic growth at a scale that traditional development practice has not. In the face of this evidence, development orthodoxies that traditionally rejected the role of the private sector are crumbling. However, as billions of people remain mired in poverty, so too are simplistic assertions that markets can cure all problems.
Against this backdrop, business expertise and business practices are being harnessed to the goals of economic and social development in myriad ways:
- Entrepreneurs are developing new business models to reach lower-income customers, giving millions of people unprecedented access to basic services;
- Global investment bankers are structuring bond issues for public health programs that will accelerate research funding and distribution of vaccines;
- Multi-national companies are entering into partnerships with non-governmental organizations to sell nutritious food to poor customers.
This course describes how these innovations (and many others) harness business approaches and resources, often through unexpected partnerships, to promote economic and social development. The course aims both to introduce students to the different ways in which business skills and experience can promote development and to provide a deeper appreciation for the complexities and challenges inherent in making this work. Rather than focusing only on success stories, we will also examine the practical and ethical limits to these models and challenge prevailing assumptions about what works.
Specifically, the course will provide students an understanding of:
- different approaches to assess development impact and the ethical implications of business-led approaches to development;
- business model and product innovation that extends markets to poorer people;
- the challenges in structuring financing for businesses that can promote development; and
- how strategic partnerships with non-profits and government are challenging the traditional distinction between profit-making and development-focused activity.
The topics and approach will be relevant to you if you have a general interest in international development, regardless of whether your immediate career plans are to work in this field or whether you work in business or the nonprofit sector. This course draws on insights from macro and micro economics, finance, history, political studies and statistics (but requires expertise in none of these areas). With a focus on the decisions facing business managers and entrepreneurs, the course gives necessarily short shift to the role of macro-policy environment, legal reform and finance institutions such as the World Bank.
In a world of unprecedented wealth (and wealth concentration), the moral and practical imperative to extend the gains of development to the billions of people still living in poverty is as pressing today as is the opportunity to accomplish this mission in our lifetimes. This course aims to arm students with a better appreciation for the power they hold to participate in this work and the challenges they will face in attempting to wield it.
Antony Bugg-Levine was a Columbia Business School faculty member from to 2013.