This is a book that has been on my to read list since it first came out about two years ago. It has a great hook. The author, Jacqueline Novogratz, while working in Africa sees a child wearing her favorite sweater from when she was a teen. She confirms that is actually her sweater and proceeds to show, through her story, the interconnectedness of the world.
This is primarily a memoir. And it is very well written and quite engaging. It is not a new story. A young, idealistic, very talented American goes to Africa and tries to bring opportunity to women in Africa. Novogratz is a banker and business developer. In spite of her youth, she actually had some good background in the banking world. And clearly she is quite bright and hard working. She spends several years working in Africa before returning to the US for grad school.
From grad school she works in the philanthropy world trying to training foundations and philanthropists to give funds to sustainable and business oriented projects, not short term purely charitable projects.
There is also an interesting interaction with Rwanda, before and after the genocide. Clearly genocide in Rwanda shook Novogratz. She had friends and acquaintances on both sides of the genocide. She recounts her meeting with these friends in the years after the genocide as well as brief re-tellings of their stories during the Genocide. Some reviewers of the book think that this section is too disjointed or should not be in the book. As a Christian that believes in the fallenness of humanity, I think it is a good meditation on the limits of human society to ever ‘save’ ourselves. One of the significant issues with charitable work is the mistaken belief that we can save the poor from the their poverty. The reality is that much of what we do actually makes things worse. And the cultural constraints of the community that we are working in, may not work well with our ideas of what it means to be lifted out of poverty.
The last third of the books is about her work starting and working with the Acumen Fund. It is a different type of foundation based on what she learned in Africa and in her worked with others since Africa. Acumen is focused on trying to find businesses and support them to accomplish philanthropic goals through business methods. It’s focused is on what she calls ‘patient investment’. Investments that most investors will not make because the time frame is too long or not a high enough return for the risk. Much of the end section is about people that Acumen Fund’s investments have helped.
In the end, the fight between traditional charity, microcredit, large scale social entrepreneurs and other methods is really not the right question. There are places for all of these methods. The method is not what is important, it is the results of reducing poverty, improving people’s lives and health and empowering people to make their own choices are the real goals.