“Discovering” the poor?

Jacqueline Novogratz, The Blue Sweater, Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Rodale, 2009.

This book is an interesting example of the oddness of this project – from time to time, I pick up a text that is either on the shelf or near one, and I can’t figure out its provenance.  So, it will sit for awhile in one place or another (The Blue Sweater has been in at least three places over the last 7 months) until such time as I investigate it.  Being away from my office today, picked it up from current location (just below two pieces of fiction, one of which I have read, the other I didn’t feel like reading) and started it on it this morning.

Ms. Novogratz worked as a banker for a few of years before working with UNICEF and the World Bank.  Eventually, she founded Acumen Fund, a venture capital outfit based on a concept entitled “patient capital.”  This concept has been described as a “bridge” of sorts between the traditional “efficiency and scale” of markets and philanthropic efforts.  Essentially, the idea is to invest in philanthropic efforts, hoping for an eventual return, over a long time run.  There will be, in other words, both a return on the investment (accountability) and a thoughtful sustainability to the philanthropy.  An example of this work in action is Water Health International which began as a relatively small investment opportunity for Acumen ($600,000) and has moved towards $30,000,000 in capital raised over the past nine years, all while providing access to safe drinking water (initially in rural India).  I noted that the company has developed a project in Ghana as well, with some help from Coca Cola.  This fact begs a question – given that water has an economic value, and soda uses a tremendous amount of water, is this an odd relationship?  I wonder, but I digress.

In the opening segments of the book, Novogratz expresses her firm belief that poverty can be eliminated, while also offering some thoughts on her own family’s experience as poor people and immigrants.  Novogratz suggests that people should truly be treated as equals in a connected world.  We are human beings and by providing opportunities and choices, we can provide each other with dignity in our lives.  She emphasizes that this is not her story per se (though much of the text is first person) but rather a collection of the stories from others, including monks, genocide survivors, young women, the elderly, etc (xi – xiv).  Also early in the text, Novogratz gives us the reason for her title, The Blue Sweater, in an intriguing and almost unbelievable story of globalism based on a childhood gift, donated to Goodwill, and found by her randomly on a young boy in Kigali, Rwanda some 11 years after she gave it away herself.

Some readers may not enjoy the memoir style quality of Novogratz’ narrative, but in terms of offering readers a personal touch, this tone and content can be effective.  It is particularly moving and arresting in any of the many sections in which she discusses Rwanda and the horrors that befell this nation in 1994.  It was in response to the Rwandan genocide that Novogratz “concentrated on understanding the potential of philanthropy to effect change in the world” (153).  She emphasized that this terrible violence visited upon Rwanda reminded her how accountability and interconnectedness were both important – given opportunities, people will believe in change and their ability to make improvements in their lives. 

The sheer volume of anecdotes and memories of her time before and after creating the Acumen Fund may overwhelm some readers as well, though again, some can be particularly instructive.  For example, Water Health International, I learned, provided water to people in 15-liter plastic containers which I found problematic.  Plastic, and its production, can have toxic consequences.  In this case however, the problem was when people would place the clean water into contaminated clay pitchers.  As I would have hoped, the response was not to eliminate the clay, which had cultural connections and importance, but rather improve education on how the clay containers needed to be sanitized prior to use (270).

Finally, I appreciate Novogratz’ important concluding statements about humanity in general.  We must develop empathy and imagination in order to support change and value in this world.  I emphasize empathy all the time with my teacher candidates – you cannot be an effective teacher if you don’t have some sense of empathy.  It’s not just my idea of course as business leaders, Novogratz herself, and economists/speech writers like Daniel Pink believe in this value too.  Novogratz talked about the “other” in poverty and how it is easy for people to avoid or ostracize the “other.”  In the classroom, we strive to avoid this, though it is easier – we do this in our personal relationships too.  But, points out Novogratz, to give of ourselves without expecting a return, to interact with others looking at each person as an opportunity rather than an affirmation of fearing the “other,” is a difficult task and one that must be embraced.  Ultimately, argues Novogratz, “we are redefining the geography of community and accepting shared shared accountability for common human values” (284).  Perhaps her optimism will not work well for all readers, but I can’t say that I dislike her hope that if we can act with empathy and concern for others, we can see a world where truly, people are created equal.

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