Written by Mike Field, Senior Technical Advisor, EcoVentures International
When working on private sector development it is often cited without question that profit motives are good. The thinking goes that a firm that makes a profit would have to make their customers happy in order to sell to them and as a result generate that profit. While this thinking on its surface makes sense, it is founded on a set of assumptions that when seen through various systemic lenses is quite flawed. Let’s start with a definition of profit. As a banker once stated in a training, profit is an opinion based on accounting rules. It is not a universal thing, but an evolved definition related to accounting and tax requirements. So in most cases, when people say profit they really mean gross margin or what is left of revenues once you subtract out costs. Even if we leave aside the detailed accounting definitions and only frame the discussion around a very general idea of profit meaning what a business person gets to take home, then we are still left with a range of assumptions related to how markets function. Understanding how markets function is where systems lenses have proven very valuable in uncovering important misguided assumptions about profit.
Going back to the original statement that profit motives are good, the assumption is that markets and market forces universally reward business that add value through customer satisfaction and that companies that cheat customers are sanctioned effectively. This assumption in how markets reward and sanction firm behavior is at the core of the concerns that good systems thinking highlights. More specifically, in most countries where there is widespread poverty, market systems are biased in favor of more extractive behaviors like rent seeking, mis-information, fake products, adulteration, etc.. – i.e., tactics and behaviors that business people can do to extract revenues without providing value in return. In many cases such biases can become rooted in social systems resulting in a process of institutionalization where norms emerge reinforcing the behavior. For example, if we take a case of an ag input provider that sees an opportunity to begin selling fake seeds, how would the market sanction that input firm if:
The multiple important mechanisms required in a market to sanction poor behavior relative to value addition are not present so sanctioning is not effective. In this scenario, it is likely that the farmers would not be able to recognize that the seed seller is cheating them, and since competitors or third party organizations like media or consumer protection NGOs are not organized to advocate on behalf of the farmer and against the seed seller, it is unlikely for the seed seller to be sanctioned. More likely, the seed seller would be rewarded for cheating the farmers by gaining more revenues with lower costs. Further it would be rational for the seed seller in such market conditioned to think that maximizing profits would mean cheating more.
In this case above, the profitability of the shop is not an indicator of adding value as the shop is specifically reducing value in the system – it is extracting value from the system not only in real financial terms in that it is taking financial capital in exchange of something that has no productivity value, but also because it is reducing the efficacy of social capital by further eroding trust. The systemic feedback via the lack of sanctions and rewards from having immediate higher margins would also reinforce that kind of behavior to be normalized, which is exactly what is observed in many developing country contexts. The result is that firms that are profit driven in systems that reward extractive business practices would, as a normal course of business, engage in behaviors (i.e., selling/buying tactics) that capture value at the expense of their customers/suppliers.
Given that in international development where many if not most market systems are biased in favor of extractive business practices, profit is especially a poor indicator of positive change at firm or market system level. Even further, the greater the profit orientation of firms within such a system often suggests that the underlying incentives pushing extractive behaviors is deeply rooted in the system and will be difficult to change. If most firms are aggressively applying tactics to extract value from their suppliers, staff, and customers then that would be an indication of a system’s strong bias in favor of markets that have self-organized to capture resources (i.e., and not add value). It is important to understand that such biases are mostly likely related to a risk management strategy that accumulates resources as a means to deal with shocks/stresses.
The table below provides specific firm and systemic patterns that indicate an extractive or a value addition orientation of a market system.
A good market systems project will focus its efforts on catalyzing firms to see the value in behaving in ways that align with a value addition orientation. They would also try to catalyze systemic changes that also align with a value addition orientation. Simply assuming profit motive is good further a myth in how market work and why they are not providing appropriate benefits to a wide enough set of citizens. Systems thinking is critical to understanding the orientation of market systems and how to shift that orientation to being more value added.
Originally posted on www.MSDhub.org. Feel free to repost elsewhere.