Here in the World Economic Forum on East Asia, Bangkok, the conference theme is Shaping the Region's Future through Connectivity:
"The 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) together form an important strategic and economic region with a combined population of over 600 million, a nominal GDP exceeding US$ 1.8 trillion, and a growth rate for the region expected to exceed 5% in 2012 despite ongoing economic turmoil in the Eurozone and the United States. The ASEAN Economic Blueprint has established concrete targets to form a single market and production base by 2015."
Inasmuch as I am excited with the enormous potential of our region, I still can't help but question how much of that growth will actually impact those at the economic base-of-the-pyramid, arguably those who need to benefit from this the most. The term inclusive growth is often used nowadays, and in the backdrop of connectivity across the region, a conversation on this must constantly take place - not only amongst us social entrepreneurs, but also amongst different stakeholders - government, big business, civil society - and necessarily, with grassroots communities as well.
I understand how tempting it can be to view the base-of-the-pyramid simply as a huge consumer market, especially across the developing economies in the region; that if a company designs the right products and services, hits the critical price points, and cracks the distribution problem, then economic returns can be reaped. I myself am no stranger to this reality coming from our work in Hapinoy, where we organize and empower microentrepreneurs who own hole-in-the-wall shops called Sari-Sari Stores, thereby enabling last-mile distribution at the base-of-the-pyramid. But our work has crystallized my perspective that our lens when we view the poor must most certainly broaden. That the poor are not just a market, they themselves can productively engage the market; the poor are not just consumers, they themselves can be distributors, retailers, producers ... entrepreneurs.
The potential on this perspective can redound in staggering returns. When we dialogue with the base-of-the-pyramid and provide access to capital, tools, and opportunities to engage the market, then we are hitting two birds with one stone. We not only alleviate poverty, we also drive growth. Just think about the potential - millions upon millions of poor people who shift from being passive beneficiaries of dole-outs, into actively engaged and empowered economic citizens. I really believe that's a revolution in the making.
I know that the region's growth will be driven by big business, regional cooperation, enabling policy, and visionary entrepreneurs; But I also believe that there will be another key driver - this revolution that starts from the bottom-up, from the base-of-the-pyramid to the top - an economic revolution driven by microentrepreneurs.