Business Fights Poverty Conference – some reflections

So the theme of this year’s conference (#BFPOxford2017) was the role of collaboration (between business, governments and NGOs) in reducing poverty.

Good points were made on collaboration – the need to understand the differing objectives of the players, and the need for dialogue and patience. But there were also a series of key insights that struck me as I listened during the two days.

First – research your business proposition thoroughly. It may sound self-evident, but it was interesting to hear that even very bright people (JP Morgan et al) can make horrendous mistakes in assessing what will work in a developing country context. Steve Blank has coined the phrase ‘get out of the building’ – the conference added ‘get into the field’. And while you are there – listen! – don’t be patronising.

Perhaps there is a more general point here – impact investing is still investing, still ‘business’. And the business basics still matter – you can’t forget them just because you’re trying to ‘do good’.

Second – collaboration is fine, but players have to stick to their core competencies. Business needs to get the business bit right, and get other institutions to play their role in (for example) training. Neelam Chhiber was particularly good at emphasising this – and also in showing that to achieve scale in a social enterprise takes time, learning, and a willingness to change corporate forms.

Third – we need to think further about a company’s ‘licence to operate.’ This came out particularly in Mark Cutifani’s contribution (CEO of Anglo American). Perhaps it’s easier to see clearly for a mining company, where the need to secure community approval is key. But looking at Kate Ranworth’s ‘donut economics’ it is a challenge we need to think about for every corporate – and be prepared to pay the price for as consumers.



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