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What’s up with the Bottom of the Pyramid?

What’s up with the Bottom of the Pyramid?

The more I work for World Pulse the more I have a growing unease and discomfort around the terminology “bottom of the pyramid.” Five years ago in business school I thought the mention of poverty in a business program was so progressive and so cutting edge. I was so honored to work with one of the greatest business management thinkers to bring this to the forefront in our discipline and into the social circles of the CEOs globally. In the book I contributed to called The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Fighting Poverty though Profit, the premise was basically that the business sector has a strong and viable role in poverty alleviation. This term and it’s less fortunate acronym, BOP, were not meant to be a pejorative terms whatsoever—the pyramid clearly and neatly illustrates the fact that there are 4 billion people who make up half the world’s population and are an underserved market.

Many economists argue that these would-be consumers are the next wave of not only productivity and innovation but also of markets for our domestic products and services. The ironic thing, here, is once you’re a consumer in some countries, this may give you more worth and identity in the eyes of a company than that of your own government—but that’s another can of worms. So as a business student, if the moral imperative of fighting poverty doesn’t get you, the profit motive should.

Now that I’ve gotten some distance from that time in my life, I think I can articulate why the terminology bothers me. It’s not just that it reminds me of the term “scraping the bottom of the barrel” or if that’s it, it’s only half it. The fact that a pyramid is a perfect representation of global income disparity is the upsetting part for me I realize. Both allude to the indignity of poverty.

But to make things worse, picture another geometrical shape next to this pyramid. Start by turning it upside down and extending it’s apex downward like the needle of a toy top. This stemless top represents the world’s assets —this is the other half of the image that is less seen and talked about. You may come up with a different image when you read the following:

The richest 1% of adults owned 40% of the world’s total assets in the year 2000. The richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of total assets. The bottom half of the world adult population owned 1% of global wealth. (Source: World Institute for Development Economics Research, The World Distribution of Household Wealth, 2006).

Me, I prefer the shape of a soccer ball—or as most of the world sees it: a football-- because of what appears to be interlinking networks of nodes and every one is connected to the rest; black and white living in perfect balance (yin and yang).

So what? So if these are the facts, I think we’re all about either accepting the world the way it is—completely topsey turvey and unbalanced-- or we work toward making the world into what it should be and could be. So that’s my point for today: not to give in to what is, but to work toward what the world could be— a football.


Jennifer Ruwart's picture

Let's Play


This post reminds me a bit of our meeting on Friday. I don't quite remember exactly what you said, but I interpreted it as Let's not move away from something, but rather toward creating the world the way we envision it. The world is so lucky to have your keen business mind and super soft squishy heart.

Jennifer Ruwart, Chief Operating Officer, World Pulse
(Although I am part of the World Pulse team, the opinions I express on PulseWire are my own.)

murali's picture


Yes , The pyramid means some memorial built over the dead man...
Bottom of the pyramid might be a managers term , yet
literally the title should have been different more creative
What u say ?

Maria de Chirikof's picture

pryamid image

I don't know, I always kind of liked the image of the pyramid, in the sense of an individual and their desire to reach a higher state of being. But I can see where it looks very bad when applied to people as a group since it does show "layers" of people in a way that is not real in a sense.

I think it does go back to that old idea of 'divide and conquer' where they (and they can be anybody or group) want you to see yourself as set apart from others, as different or as better. This is just as true of those working for change when they forget that the people are not what they are against but their actions. But when talking of it you usually do mention them as a group of people since that is easily understood. I guess the problem comes when others reading our words forget we are pointing out bad actions by misguided people and not the people themselves.

I think for real change to happen we must raise awareness of this concept since it will have power to separate us until we can all see it for what it is. That is one of the good things about this place is we are everywhere so it is kind of understood that we do not mean a whole group of people but their actions happening and that our goal is unity and peace.

I think until we can use our power of economic control by raising awareness of businesses that need to be boycotted until they treat all their workers equally and fairly that we will not be able to create the change we need. Then we can begin to change that economic shape from the pyramid image to the football one.


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