16/01/2014 08:19 GMT | Updated 17/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Does Business Hijack International Development?

Rose Beale, Events Officer of Cambridge Development Initiative, explores the issue ahead of Friday's Forum.

There are a new cast of heroes and villains on the international development scene. They are not governments, charities, NGOs, but businesses.

Firstly, two caricatures - the big, evil business vs. the small, ethical enterprises. On the one hand, the Nestlés pushing breastmilk substitutes, the BPs oozing oil. On the other hand the newly applauded, smaller heroes: enterprises introducing solar power to rural communities; sellers of mobile apps giving access to market and health information.

But the picture is increasingly complex.

Multinationals are emphasizing their commitment to positive change. A quick glance at BP's website informs us that they are 'Committed to the Gulf' and 'Restoring the Environment'. This is a PR stunt, but they have also put their money where the mouths is - creating a $20-billion trust to pay claims, settlements, natural resource damages.

Companies without such PR disasters are also involved in development, sometimes through their core activity, but also through foundations, charities and smaller businesses funded by the organisation. Are these motivated by genuine concern, or only the white side of darker business practices? Is the charitable wing of Google, 'Google giving', mainly an antidote to tax dodges; the Shell Foundation's for global development and environmental challenges, a counterbalance to Shell's environmental damage?

Perhaps the most fascinating trend is the focus on the so-called 'bottom of the pyramid' - those living in poverty- as the new consumers. The idea is that lifting these out of poverty is a huge opportunity, that development and the pursuit of profit go hand-in-hand.

Who are the heroes and villains in the new story, the blockbuster painted by one business guru as the 'Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits'? (C.K. Prahalad, 2006) Or is this more ambiguous? Take the brewing giant SABMiller (global brands include Miller and Peroni) who recently begun to sell Impala, a beer made from cassava in Mozambique. Their head of global head of sustainability, Andy Wales, paints a roseate picture:

"By using locally sourced raw materials, we can make high-quality, but affordable products for consumers who would otherwise be drinking informal or illicit alcohol. So the long-term commercial opportunities are significant."

Is this ethical or exploitative, practical or paternalistic?

Either way the idea of the 'Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid' is gaining ground as multinationals move into this space directly, or fund charities and independent organisations. Even if we are uncomfortable with big business' take on this 'Fortune', isn't this the same concept that drives 'heroic', smaller enterprises, which rely on the limited income of their customers for growth?

The crux of the New Development Blockbuster is essentially this - are the goals of profit and development compatible, identical or antithetical? Does Business itself 'hijack' development?

Front row-viewing takes place at the Union this Friday at 5pm, with the Forum 'Does Business Hijack International Development', co-hosted by Cambridge Development Initiative.

For more on Cambridge Development Initiative and our speakers - with expertise ranging from the European Commission and Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the Cass Business School and the Boston Consulting Group - see our facebook page and our listing in Prospect Magazine.