Private companies and public interest: an oxymoron for A2J?

By Antonin Milza

With this blog post, I want to speak not only about ICT4D but more generally about development. The notion of development has interested me for several years. It can be very difficult to give an exact definition of what development is. For me, when I think about “development”, I refer to the development of societies and of all nations in the world. I don’t have a different mental image for “development” whether it is for southern or northern countries. In my mind development is above all else the process that able a Nation to develop itself in order to improve its economy and the living conditions of its citizens. In the northern countries, it was the industrial revolutions in the XVIII and XIX centuries that enabled these Nations - by a better understanding of how scientific knowledge can be transformed into real applications that improve the economy – to increase their GDP, more than in the 1800 previous years. For several reasons, including colonization and decolonization, other Nations in the world, especially in Africa and Asia, didn’t be able to use this phenomenon of industrialization to develop themselves. Today, several countries in Asia, like India and China are catching up with northern countries. Tomorrow, I am sure it will be the same for African countries. The world has changed a lot since the XIX century, and today the solutions and the methods available for a Nation in order to develop itself are thus very different.

It is naïve to think that using the exact same things we used 2 centuries ago will be efficient today. Nevertheless, and again, for me development is not different according to region and the era of history: what are different are the technologies, the opportunities and even the philosophy on which it is based at a given moment. Today, ICT are a good opportunity for Nations to develop themselves, just like the inventions in steel industry, electrochemistry and resource extractions used to be the opportunities of development two hundred years ago. For me, development is both the process and the faculty of a generation to make the most of the context, the current technologies and opportunities to help its country to become stronger.

World population and GDP per capita in the last 2000 years (source:

Another question that has interested me a lot is how to be part of this development of Nations? What do you have to do in order to help either your country or other ones to be stronger on the international community? Do you have to work in an ONG or in a government administration in the development area? Can a private company be another good option? Is it possible to work for the good of all in a private company?

Few years ago, it was impossible for me to work for the public interest in a private company. To my mind, because a company focus only on its private interest (make profit) that was totally incompatible with everyone interest. I used to oppose private interest versus good of all. Today, I think that things are more complex than that. Yes, the goal of a private company is to increase its profit, i.e. to make money. But this money didn’t appeared as if by magic. A private company makes money because it does a favor in exchange. Apple makes billions of profit each year, but it is because a lot of people in the world consider Apple products as great products. Maybe these products help you to be more creative or do to your work better and faster. It is an exchange. The company gives you something you want; you give it some money back. I sometimes hear that private companies can’t improve the good of all because they are unmoral. It is not true: a private company is neither moral neither unmoral, it is amoral. A company is only a structure helping people to design new products and services and offer them to people. It is only about trade and exchange, it is a non-sense to speak about morality for such a structure: what can be immoral are effectively the decisions made by the CEO of a company. Humans can be unmoral, companies can’t. Furthermore, we have to remember than 99% of the population work for private companies. You get money thanks to your work for a company. Thus, the more your company is strong the more chances you have to get paid at the end of the month: the private interest of your company is link with your private interest. I have the conviction that sometimes - when the decisions took by the CEO and executive committee are good - the private interest of a company and the public interest can meet. I will tell you the story of a company who has changed my vision of economy and development.

Essilor is a French company that produces ophthalmic lenses along with ophthalmic optical equipment. Essilor is today the worldwide leader in this field. In 1849, Essilor used to be a thirteen employees company in a little village of the French countryside. Today Essilor operates in over 100 countries over five continents and these are 53000 employees and their family that can live thanks to this enterprise all around the world (India, Brazil, Japan etc.). Essilor makes 5 billion of profit each year. Yes the CEO and the executive’s direction members make money, a - lot - of - money. But at the same time Essilor had created and distributed great products in exchange. It is for example responsible for creating Varilux, the world's first progressive lens which corrects presbyopia and allows clear vision in the wearer's near, intermediate and far vision. It helped thousands of thousands of people over the world to live normally. I have no shame to say that for me Essilor contributed to the human development.

Yes, but what about the poor? The good of all is also the good of the most destitute in the population. What about the poorest countries in the world? Apple sells great products, but because of their price, they are only available for a small portion of the world population. Apple doesn’t try to help the bottom of the pyramid, like all other companies it only tries to make profit: Apple makes money and poor stay poor. Nevertheless, like I said before, everything is conditioned by the decisions and the strategy of the executives committee of the company. Apple management consider as a good strategy to sell product at a high price and thus with high margins. But it can also be a good solution to sell a product or a service as a very low price in order to get access to a new and huge market: the bottom of the pyramid constitute a market of billions of customers. A company will never act as a charity only to help people, but sometimes its desire to make money in exchange of great products or services will meet the good of all. Since spring 2003, Essilor has launched in India a project for the Bottom of the Pyramid. The objective of this project is to able tens of millions of visually impaired Indians who don’t have the ability to have access to diagnosis and glasses prescription in order to improve their eyesight at a cost that is accessible. But it is not a charity project; it is an economically viable project despite the extremely low prices. The exam is free and the glasses with lenses are sold from $3 to $8 (about 350 rupees). These prices cover the costs of production and distribution. Essilor wants to make more money but to do that it helps hundred thousands of people.

Since 2006, some vans of Essilor equipped for eye exams and eyeglasses cross some isolated rural areas in India, particularly in the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Patients are examined on site or remotely via a satellite connection in the case of an ophthalmologic examination and, if necessary, corrective glasses are made ​​immediately for them at an affordable price. The remote examination is performed by an ophthalmologist from the Aravind and Sankara Nethralaya hospitals with which Essilor has established partnerships. These hospitals are particularly expert in the treatment of eye diseases including cataracts. More than 250 examinations are made every day and more than 150,000 pairs of glasses have been sold since the beginning of this project. India, with 1.1 billion people, has 52 million visually impaired citizens. One can consider that because Essilor only want to make money, it doesn’t improve the good of all, even if their decisions have good consequences in India. I disagree. I admire this project. Not only because it has helped poor people, but because it is profitable. Yes. Why? Today we try to imagine new way of making business because sustainability has become paramount nowadays. What a better project that a profitable one? I think that profitability is sustainability. Charity is not. A company that doesn’t make profit is a dead company. Dead companies lead to unemployment, and unemployment is against good for all. I don’t say that charity is a bad thing, in France I am myself a volunteer in a soup kitchen association and in a French jail in Paris. But I can do that because I am a student and my parents can help me financially. I won’t be able to do that all my life. It is not sustainable.

I am passionate about industry and companies and I think they constitute the heart of development and economy. But I am not naïve. Sometimes private businesses can have horrible consequences. In Indonesia for example, Tabaco companies have a huge power. There is advertising for tobacco everywhere, even in playground for children. Because hospitals don’t get any money from their government, they have to find some privates funding, sometimes from tobacco industry itself: what a paradox and what a danger! I admire the Bay Area in California for the creativity of its companies, but we have to face the facts: companies have here a huge power. Google has a bus service reserved for its employees that used the same networks of the old public transportation. At the same moment, I discovered during my trip at LA hundreds of homeless people that want to work, want to help their country, and want to live normally but just can’t because wages have become too expensive. For me it is just intolerable. Companies are not supposed to have such a power. Here clearly private interest and good for all become completely opposed. We need counter powers. In my country we think it is the role of the State: for example to protect the country against the risks of nuclear energy we have an independent institution with full power that audits and punishes the industry when the security obligations are not respected. Just like the anti-trust law in USA we have public administrations and independent institutions that regulate markets to maintain a strong concurrence and protect consumers. We think that health is not supposed to be controlled by private companies, so we decided 50 years ago to build a public system for that. It is very expensive for France, but everyone can see a doctor, everyone can go to hospitals for operations, everyone can get medicines, freely.

I will conclude this blog post with this idea: companies are managed by humans. Humans are both capable of great and horrible things, so do the companies they build. We have to find a balance to canalize the great opportunities of development that the structure of enterprise gives us. Companies are only a place that enables us to innovate and express our creativity to develop our societies. We have to make to most of it, not the worst. It is difficult to find this equilibrium but it is also fascinating, and it is what I want to do in my life.

Frantisek Kupka (1871-1957), Les Cheminées, 1906,


  1. Antonin,

    What a fascinating blog post--thank you! You know what's even more interesting about India and China? Not only are they catching up, but some would argue that they are actually ahead!

    I was intrigued by your analysis of corporate morality. You wrote that you believe companies--as private entities/structures--to be amoral. I would agree with this statement if it was NOT persons making decisions (as you yourself say!) and if companies in the US, for instance, were not treated as persons. But they are. Also, if private companies were in fact amoral, how would you distinguish between pure for-profit firms vs. social enterprises that do have a social mission? Both make profit, but the scale and manner differs.

    I remember that San mentioned you were reading Prahalad's BoP book. Well, seems that it's convinced you! :) I personally still have lots of issues with the BoP profit-making model. One is the state's blatant absence that you criticize yourself in the case of LA. I agree with you that the state and other government entities have many responsibilities: think profit regulations, distributive policies, etc. I find your musings on power TO the companies, on one hand, and TOO MUCH power to the companies, on the other, a little confusing/contradictory. But maybe we could grab a coffee one day to chat more about it!

    Thanks for sharing your opinions on development, profit and Essilor! Very great, thought-provoking piece!

    1. Hi Christina,

      Thank you for your comment :).

      What I wanted to say is that the market economy is not moral. Either immoral. It is amoral. The distinction between social enterprise and normal profit firms depend of Humans. Each of us has to make his/her best in order to try, wherever we are, to have a moral behavior.

      Yes I know it is a little confusing. It is also because It is difficult to say precisely what I want. To my mind we have to find a balance. In one hand companies can create great products and thus employment for its employees. Firms are so fundamental for the economy of a country : citizens get job in firms, customers get useful product to improve their life
      and the State doesn't have to borrow money from the market to counterbalance the importations. On the other hand, I think that the role of firms stop here (It is my disagreement with Prahalad's BoP book). Without a powerful state, inequalities will skyrocket, because rich become richer and poor stay poor. One reason is that today the productivity of capital is higher than the productivity of work. For example we are very attached to public education in France because we believe that it is the role of State to help motivated people to make great studies. Nevertheless (sorry I like to balance my own arguments) entrepreneurship is also a good way to redistribute wealth.

      Let's debate about it with some coffee !

  2. Hi Antonin, thanks a lot for this fascinating blog post. You have chosen a wonderful topic that I'm sure a lot of people like us think about everyday and try to grapple with. However, as you talk on a more macro level about corporations, I think the same profit/morality argument stands valid for individuals as well. A few months ago when I was hunting for jobs to work for post graduation, I was in this huge dilemma about whether I should work for these "amoral" money making corporations and hone my skills or whether I should directly get involved in development work. After speaking to a bunch of people, I figured that in order to do SUCCESSFUL development work in countries like India, you'd be better off with a lot of financial capital and a wide network of influential connections.

    Thanks again for your blog post. Loved your choice of images.

    1. Hi Priya :)

      You chose a very nice date to write your comment, thank you :)

      It is exactly the same for me. I have tried for years to find the good place to help for development. Three years ago, it was not imaginable for me to work in a firm. But then, I discover the world of companies and It is very different than I thought. Now I am totally pensioned how enterprise works, how a startup can grow and become a huge firm, how they contribute to the local, national and global economy.

      You said to me you like "les cheminées" by Frantisek Kupka. Me too. I like the picture itself, I don't know why but it is for me very poetic. But I also like what is behind that. For me this picture represent this moment in the history (industrial revolution of the XIX century) where Humans discover than they can change their destiny thanks to sciences, technologies and innovations. This is maybe why I decided to study sciences, I believe they shape the future. We, the humans, have to be moral in our actions to shape the future in a good way.

    2. I wanted to say passionate not pensioned sorry

    3. Thanks for your beautiful reply, Antonin. Especially loved your rationale for choosing "les cheminées" as one of the images which is super relevant to this article.

  3. A very riveting blog post Antonin that is sure to spark the much needed debate on capitalism and its impact on development work.
    I would love to cite Tata's work in India and would definitely recommend that you look at their business model to see how they merge capitalism, socialism, and development goals in a seamless way:

    Tata's development work is not isolated to uplifting of classes but they also contribute to environment and development of nation.
    Ratan Tata (head honcho of Tata empire) is a hero who has achieved the impossible feat of balancing profitability and development goals.