Book Review: The Blue Sweater

I am so inspired by this book by Jacqueline Novogratz that I am seriously considering buying this book. It is about her personal journey as a do-gooder, from the typical twenty-something out to save the world through personal service & charity to an established philanthropist, trying to save the world one loan at a time to businesses trying to reach the poorest of the poor.

Many people hate the idea of making a profit on the backs of the poor, but Ms. Novogratz makes a convincing case that pure charity is not sustainable. The projects are often undertaken just to spend money, and no one asks if there is a real need for the project. Technology provided by charity quickly breaks, and there is no money for maintenance nor for training in repairs. Handicrafts are always a popular way to employ poor women, but no one asks if there is a market for their products nor if they can be made profitably so the women can continue making them after the charity money runs out or moves on, as it will inevitably do.

Ms. Novogratz argues that the way to help the poor is to find businesses filling market niches providing to the poor and either invest in them or make loans to them to help them expand. She makes the point that rather than it being immoral to sell goods and services to the poor (as opposed to giving charity to them), the poor are often eager to buy through the marketplace.

For example, there is a place for charity to provide bed nets against mosquitoes to the most vulnerable to malaria, i.e. children and pregnant women. However, the rest of a village would also like bed nets, and they would like to replace the charitable bed nets after they wear out. Here is a need that can be filled by a business selling low-cost ($1-2) bed nets.

A business selling to the poor will also most likely employ the poor. So the poor are getting the goods and services they need, and there is more employment, and money, in their community.

While I am not working with the poorest people, I found the book very inspiring for thinking about the ways in which charity is or is not sustainable. Ms. Novogratz emphasizes the need for a charity to have the buy-in of the population it will serve, or it will not be successful. I know through my own experience that it is not possible to create a successful organization simply by assuming there is a need, and starting the organization. If there is no interest in the target population, then the organization will fail.

Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for generating interest and buy-in. I still do not fully understand how to create a successful organization, but I am always learning, and hopefully I will figure it out someday.

My one problem with the book is that Ms. Novogratz never acknowledges her own luck in her career. She didn’t even want to work directly after college, instead wanting to take a year off to see the world, but her parents asked her to go through the interview process ‘for practice.’ The first resume she sends out attracts an interviewer, who hires her after she flubs the first part of the interview. Some people do get great jobs through not very much effort, but this is certainly not the norm. Luck and chutzpah play a large part in this and the amazing positions she holds later, but she never really acknowledges this.

Other than that, I really enjoyed this book. It is a fascinating, well-written account of charity and philanthropy in the lives of the poor and how to improve both the philanthropy and the lives of the poor at the same time. Four out of five stars.

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3 Comments

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     /  September 5, 2010

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