Business & Poverty: Exploring the strategy and practice of corporate-led poverty alleviation initiatives

23 May 2009

CRASSH 17 Mill Lane


This Workshop is now closed.



International Workshop

Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH)


Corporations are the flagships of the business and private sector, and represent a contentious history, particularly concerning developing economies. The highly extractive and exploitative practices of corporations have spawned endless criticism from activist groups, academics, social movements, and labour unions, rendering corporate participation in any form of “social work” a questionable proposition. On the other hand, corporations also provide both post-industrial and developing countries with a basket of basic goods and services that can be regarded as integral to daily living. Indeed, many argue that market-based solutions to development and poverty alleviation are increasingly appropriate, which begs the question: what is the new role of the corporation in 21st century development?

The notion of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) has pervaded business discourse and practice for the past few decades, but much CSR activity still remains a mere discursive mechanism for corporate PR. Furthermore, CSR initiatives are often funded from foundation or philanthropic budgets, thereby operating outside the core business of a company. Recently, however, a variety of market-based approaches to development are combining claims to ‘social responsibility’ with an optimism couched in a language of ‘innovation,’ ‘capacity building,’ and ‘opportunity,’ proposing an actual business case for enterprise-led models for poverty alleviation.

Going beyond corporations’ social responsibilities, this optimistic business case perceives the world’s income-poor as an “untapped market,” inviting corporations to apply their capabilities and position in the global economy in the pursuit of raising standards of living in ‘developing’ countries. Many in the business community have come to call these initiatives “Base of the Pyramid” (BoP), evoking the demographic description referring to the 4-5 billion “poor” earning less than $2/day. Other agents in this field have created their own terms that allude to corporate involvement in poverty alleviation, including “social enterprise”, “creative capitalism”, “inclusive markets” and “business against poverty”.


This workshop seeks to address corporate sustainability, grounding the discussion in particular geographical and case-based contexts. We will encourage a dialogue concerning the theories around business and poverty (including "BoP" approaches, social capital, Triple Bottom Line...) in relation to particular cases where these theories have been applied in practice. The aim of the workshop would be to unpack the notion of "sustainable enterprise" to discuss the tensions between business strategy, ethics, and social impact on the ground.
We invite contributions (paper or case study-based presentations from academics and practitioners, or participation in the roundtable discussion) that offer critical reflections on the role of business in poverty alleviation. This might involve, but is not limited to questions such as the following:

- Can and if so how should corporations address the unmet needs of the poor, whom have been largely ignored by globalization?

- Decades of respectively questioning the top-down and Western biased practices of development institutions and corporations in relation to the poor in developing countries has prompted both the corporate and the development sector to identify a mutually viable opportunity for working together, aligning missions and resources, and calling for new capabilities. How has this been put into practice so far?
- How have certain corporations (if at all) not only rhetorically changed their approach to business, but also actively restructured their operations and organizational capabilities to “survive” in an increasingly unstable environment?


- How should corporate-led development projects be monitored and evaluated? In particular, how does the notion of “social value” get assessed along the more quantifiable metrics of profitability?


- Should CSR be reconceptualized if sustainable enterprise is to adhere to its financial bottom line while serving the “unmet needs of the poor”? If so, how can profit and positive social impact be reconciled both strategically and in practice?

- Is this recent politically and socially friendly language qualifying the “new” vision of globalization and capitalism as “smart”, “inclusive”, or “creative” a radical attempt to amend the failings of neoliberalism? Or is this coupling of development and market-based approaches raising new intellectual and practical problems when purporting to alleviate poverty?


- To what extent is poverty a business issue?
- How is business’ engagement with poverty normatively redefining the roles of markets, communities, and participation for development?
- How will the recent economic ‘crisis’ affect corporate sustainability?


Following the interdisciplinary mission of the Cambridge University Business & Society Research Group, the workshop provides a forum to connect researchers (faculty members and graduate students) from different disciplines as well as practitioners. Participation will be limited to 30 people. There is no participation fee, but unfortunately we cannot offer travel funding.

 Workshop from 10.00am to 6.00pm followed by Social get-together with dinner and drinks* (see programme for details)


*Please note that  dinner and drinks are  not included. For those of you interested in joining us for a group dinner following the workshop, please specify on the registration form so we can make a reservation. We will be confirming the restaurant's location closer to the time.*


Proposals for contributions (containing contact details) can be sent to Tatiana Thieme ( no later than 20 February 2009. For paper presentations please include an abstract not exceeding 500 words. For participation as a general discussant please send us your expression of interest. Notification of acceptance will follow at the latest by 15 March 2009.


Unfortunately, we cannot offer accommodation.

Useful links: 


Tatiana Thieme
Geography Department
University of Cambridge
T: +44 (0) 78 09 47 54 05

Part of the Business & Society Research Group

Administrative contact Esther Lamb at CRASSH

Saturday 23 May  

10.00 - 10.30


10.30 - 11.00

Welcome and Introduction

Poverty, Power and Participation: a Business Issue?
Tatiana Thieme, Geography Department, University of Cambridge

11.00 - 12.30

Panel 1

Mishko Hansen, PhD candidate in business ethics, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

 Make Poverty Business: Entrepreneurship, Philanthrocapitalism and the Spirit of Enterprise
Dr. Peter S Heslam
, Transforming Business, University of Cambridge

Business and Poverty: The Indian approach to corporate sustainability
Sophie Hadfield-Hill,  PhD Candidate, Geography Department, University of Leicester

Making the "moral case" for Fairtrade - The French and UK perspective in constrast Juliane Reineke, PhD Candidate,  Judge Business School, University of Cambridge

12.30 - 13.30 

Lunch Break

13.30 - 15.00

Panel 2

Dr. Kathryn Tanner, Post-doctoral research fellow, Sociology Department, University of Cambridge

LET ME BE POOR!’ : What it takes for business to get involved in building the welfare for Rroma/Gypsy communities in Romania
Dr Dumitru BORTUN & Camelia CRISAN, National School for Political and Administrative Studies, Bucharest, Romania

Social Enterprise and Rural Drinking Water in Andhra Pradesh
Sarika Seshadri, Centre for Study of Poverty & Social Justice, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol

Long-term’ and ‘Long Call’: SCJ and the BoP Nairobi Toilet 
Justin Dekoszmovszky,
Manager of Strategic Sustainability, Developing Markets, SC Johnson

15.00 - 16.30

Panel 3

Charmian Love, COO, Volans

Serving the Low-Income Group with Microfinance in China
Jianghua Zhou, PhD Candidate, Research Center for Technological Innovation, Tsinghua University, China

Managing Society: The Politics of Social Provision in Kazakhstan’s Oil Industry Elizabeth V. Carlson, PhD Candidate, Development Studies, Cambridge University

Public figures and private interests: The blurred line between business and government in conflict-affected countries
Dr Naoise Mac Sweeney, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Fac of Classics, University of Cambridge


16.30 - 16.45

Tea/ Coffee Break

17.00 - 18.00     

Closing Remarks by Dr. Bhaskar Vira
and Roundtable discussion      


18.30 - onward

Optinonal, Social get-together with dinner at Browns Bar & Brasserie (23 Trumpington Street)

Dinner and drinks are not included.
For those of you interested in joining us for a group dinner following the workshop, please specify on the registration form so we can make a reservation. We will be confirming the restaurant's location closer to the time.*