Shane Heywood

Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development

Who are You Calling Bottom of the Pyramid?

Most people don’t like to be at the bottom or base of anything. Bottom of the list. Bottom of the barrel. Bottom feeder.

On top of that, most people would never call an individual or group they seek to serve anything that sounds remotely derogatory. Professional service firms call their customers, ‘clients.’ A bar’s customers – ‘patrons.’

Outside of industry, society places a premium on the way groups and individuals are addressed. In 2011, to call an African-American, or a Black person in North America, ‘coloured’ might not generate a favourable response. On the other hand, some people from South Africa who may look like African-Americans to a North American may welcome (even insist on) being called Coloured.

Words in general, and names in particular, matter.

They matter because they help to indicate the value placed on the item or person. They matter because they affect the way a person sees himself or herself.

For these reasons, I dislike the term Bottom of the Pyramid, or BoP. A popular website on development issues, NextBillion, defines BoP as “the largest, but poorest socio-economic group. In global terms, this is the group of 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2.50 per day.”

Within some circles, people seek to treat the “BoP” as consumers. This can be achieved by, for example, providing smaller packets of goods, such as shampoo, at a price point that is more accessible to the “BoP.” It is claimed, that by treating the “BoP” as consumers, they are no longer a charity, but are in a better position of Respect. A position of Appreciation.

This claim almost feel fabulous at best, paradoxical at worst. How can someone feel greater self worth, when they are addressed as “Bottom” or “Base of the Pyramid?”

The sublime aim of improving livelihoods demands a certain sense of circumspect in how we address those we seek to serve. If we, who have devoted our lives to helping those who live on $2.50 USD/day, use the word “Bottom” of the pyramid (when many of us are at the top) – how will people who do not place primacy on poverty alleviation address individuals without adequate access to basic goods and services?

So, fine. What other term should we use? Admittedly, any term we use is likely to sound derogatory. Words have associations that can be hard to jettison.

Yet, I wonder – do we need a name? What about a less charged term and a more objective approach: Individuals who live below $2/day.

Not as sexy as “BoP,” and it need not be.

And definitely not perfect. I will never have all the answers.

All I ask is that you don’t call me, or anyone you care about, “base” of anything.


5 comments on “Who are You Calling Bottom of the Pyramid?

  1. Joel
    January 7, 2011

    The naming of this consumer group says more about those doing the naming than those who are earning less than 2.50 a day. By calling out members of the BoP, I am identified as a) not belonging to that group and b) one of those humane souls who cares about the less fortunate. Ultimately naming and labeling of this sort is mainly self-serving. Besides, you wouldn’t sell many copies of your book if it was titled “The Fortune in Selling to People Who Live On Less Than 2.50 a Day” – it just isn’t as catchy.

  2. Rob
    January 12, 2011

    Communication – and typology – are critical to what we do. I think you have expressed the unsaid feelings of many in our community (including me) when you express discomfort around the term “bottom of the pyramid”

    It is for this reason that the co-author of the first BoP article, Stuart Hart, began using the term “base” instead of “bottom” some years back. He felt it was less pejorative. In fact, without a solid base/foundation, a structure cannot stand.

    That said, base still has its issues. So does “individuals earning less than $2.50 per day” or “below poverty line” or “poor”.

  3. lebert heywood
    January 13, 2011

    “bottom” in any context will always be an issue. So we need to highlight the positive (“top”). Nothing wrong with a little reverse phsycology. Base as relate to foundation has little to do with “bottom” and more to do with strength, standing up and be counted.

  4. shanelheywood
    January 13, 2011

    The positives of being at the “base,” comes from an assumption that the base is acting as a the foundation for a desired structure. Ideally, a structure that will remain intact perpetually.

    Such an outcome would be against the ethos of the BoP – a movement that seeks to remove individuals from a livelihood of living under $2.50 USD/day. Instead of a pyramid, a diamond structure is preferable.

    As a result, any positive from being at the “base” is contrary to objectives of the BoP movement as a foundation is appealing because it will remain at the bottom.

    The ‘foundation’ notion becomes particularly uncomfortable when we recognize and suggest that the position of those at the top (us), demands the continued presence of those at the Bottom. That is an argument I do not find wholly convincing.

    Finally, “below poverty line,” and other phrases do have their own issues. Agreed. For me though, the primary issue with the phrase “individuals earning less than $2.50/day” is that people are earning less than $2.50/day.

    While the term BoP gets across this economic definition, my concern is that the “BoP” is turning into more of a trite sound bite, a sexy marketing phrase, with no deep examination into the value conveyed with the use of such a phrase.

  5. Hadji Beye
    January 13, 2011

    I perfectly agree with this article, months ago I tweeted repeatedly that I will no longer use Bop or bottom of the pyramid when addressing the poorest populations in the world.

    They are poor and live in difficult conditions, should we burden them even more with such adjectives? But just like someone mentioned in a comment this name is more a reflection on those who came up with it rather than the poor themselves…because to them (the poor) it doesn’t mean anything.

    At least when someone use the “BoP” terminology, let it be in an effort to help them come out of poverty and not just a “sexy” publicity stunt or just lip service without any real accomplishments.

    Being African and personally knowing many people who would be considered “BoP” I find it derogative and I choose to not use it. I think that the amount of money you have doesn’t determine who you are in the scale of human race so I disagree with “BoP”..but since it is mainstream now, it will be very difficult to stop or reduce the usage of the term.


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This entry was posted on January 7, 2011 by in BoP, Business, Social Entrepreneurship.

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