Hindu Kush-Himalayan

How Hollywood stereotypes block economic development

January 15, 2014: 1:54 PM ET

Partnerships between government and the private sector could help fight poverty in places like India, Nepal, and China, but the stereotype that corporations are greedy and evil get in the way.

By Curtis S. Chin

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FORTUNE – In the 1960s film, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, actor Clint Eastwood plays a loner fighting off a ruthless bounty hunter and a Mexican bandit in pursuit of stolen gold. It's pretty easy to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, but as the Western plays out, those lines start to blur.

The film reminds us of our tendencies to form stereotypes. Recently, I spoke at a conference in Kathmandu, Nepal about the importance of business involvement in helping local economies grow, create jobs, and fight poverty. It was hosted by the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a research center studying development across the mountainous Hindu Kush-Himalayan region that includes China, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Bhutan.

One participant declared, "Oh, you're one of the bad guys," after learning that I was from the private sector. I was more amused than surprised by the remark; having worked in government under several U.S. administrations, and as a corporate executive, I realize stereotypes follow whichever career path you choose: The private sector has been cast as profit-driven folks unlikely to do good in the world; the public sector has been called corrupt, while the not-for-profit sector has been labeled naïve.

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As common as these stereotypes might be, they get in the way of economic development. The private, public, and not-for-profit players in the Himalayan region can fight poverty better together, but they've been slow to come together and move beyond the politics and discord that keep far too much of the region poor, even as other parts of the Asia-Pacific see robust growth. With so much talk about how public-private partnerships could combat poverty, the impoverished mountain regions will benefit if we move beyond stereotypes and finger-pointing. The Bad, the Corrupt, and the Naive may well be an interesting title for an upcoming film, but that's no prescription for building the kind of trust needed to move partnerships forward.

We must better serve mountain communities often plagued by inaccessibility and fragile or poor agricultural ecosystems. ICIMOD has taken a first step, and others would be smart to follow by beginning to seek the perspectives of the private sector. Chambers of commerce and individual business representatives from Western countries are often more than willing to explore shared opportunities and areas of concern. Likewise, corporations should be open to listen to the views of residents and government about their practices and the impact of their products and services, particularly on the most vulnerable members of society; one idea is to have both business and development communities support research that will lead to actionable, on-the-ground efforts to fight poverty in the region.

We must move beyond stereotypes, as well as politics and the business-as-usual mindset. Doing so is essential to extend Asia's economic growth to this mountain region's most important stakeholders -- namely, the people who have long called the Hindu Kush-Himalaya their home.

Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010), is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.  Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

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