Economic Inequality

Can the Private Sector Solve Inequality?

Corporate leaders are recognizing the critical role their companies can play in ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are felt by all segments of society.

Can the Private Sector Solve Inequality?

By: Parag Mehta

March 09, 2019

The world has reached a disturbing new threshold: the richest one percent now own nearly half of all wealth. Economic inequality is getting worse by the day and is fueling populist backlashes. As the head of OXFAM Winnie Byanyima said at Davos, “Extreme inequality is really out of control…it’s undermining our economies, fracturing our societies, fueling crime, fueling ill-health – it’s bad for everyone.” 

That these conversations are happening on global stages speaks to the urgent need to address inequality. More corporate leaders are recognizing the critical role their companies can play in ensuring that the benefits of economic growth are felt by all segments of society – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because their success depends on a growing and prosperous middle class. When the rich get richer, they tend to save their income rather than consume more goods and services, whereas people in the middle class tend to spend their money more quickly, providing the fuel that powers the economy.

How do we address inequality and scale solutions?

As someone who spent most of my 20-year career working in public service, I understand the wariness around the private sector’s role in addressing inequality — many people in government and non-profits see big business as the problem, not the solution.

I originally pursued a career in government because, as a son of immigrants, I wanted to both give back to this country and make it better, fairer, more just and more responsive to the needs of its people. From civil rights to public health, I was able to work on issues that, at their core, were about reducing inequality and ensuring opportunities for all.

So when Shamina Singh, president of the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, first approached me to join her team, I was skeptical. The more Shamina and I spoke, however, the more intrigued I became by the possibilities of what could be accomplished when a private company puts its assets toward achieving social good. I began to think about what we could achieve without the bureaucracy and red tape of government, and with the innovation, resources and ability to quickly scale that are the hallmarks of the private sector.

When I hear critics who, like me, have been skeptical about private sector efforts at doing good, I remember the famous plea by John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” The “you” he is talking about is all of us. And for those of us who work in the private sector, we have ways and means of doing good that are often left untapped.

Mastercard as a force for good

What does doing “all the good you can” look like for us? We focus on bringing the strengths of Mastercard — its reach and global network, its relationships with banks and governments, its expertise in fintech and data analytics — to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges. One of many examples is our partnership with Unilever and Kenya Commercial Bank. Together, we are helping thousands of small shopkeepers in Kenya access the capital they need to grow their businesses – growth that means buying more, selling more, hiring more formal employees and telling their kids that they can stop working at the store and go to school, instead.

The president and CEO of Mastercard, Ajay Banga, has said we can win with decency at our core. He’s unabashed about the fact that we are a profit-making enterprise. He knows we can succeed if we make the world a better place because greater inclusion and less inequality is good for business. Companies prosper when all the world’s people benefit from economic growth. To me, that’s a recipe for ensuring that our efforts at doing good are sustained and that we succeed in making a meaningful impact in addressing problems which are too big to be solved by simply writing a check.

Although private companies have the ability to make change, they are not saviors who can go at it alone. It’s going to take a multisector approach to tackle our most pressing challenges. The private sector has the choice to follow business models that put people at the center of their efforts, and that cultivate a new generation of leaders who prioritize moral leadership and decency. Those are the kind of people we want to work with – and, by the way, we are hiring!

This post was originally published on LinkedIn

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