13 February 2012

Book Review: The Blue Sweater

"There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living." - Nelson Mandela

A few years ago I came across a copy of The Blue Sweater, by Jacqueline Novogratz, in a bookstore and really enjoyed the first chapter. When I returned home I dropped it in my Amazon.com shopping cart (that's why brick-and-mortar bookstores are dying), but then some of the reader reviews on the book made me hesitate. Most of the criticism seemed to circle around the writer's lack of style, and I saw a complaint in there too that Ms. Novogratz focused too much on herself and not enough on the developing world. In actually reading the book, I can agree somewhat with the first critique, and less so with the second.

The first chapter of The Blue Sweater is very engaging. Ms. Novogratz shares about a blue sweater that she'd given to Goodwill as a teenager, and how she found that exact shirt being worn by a child in Africa years later. It's a story that brings home the reality of how interconnected we all are in this great-big-but-getting-smaller world.

After the first chapter, Jacqueline digs into her life story in two parts. First would be how she fell in love with Africa and got involved in development work in Rwanda, and the second part covers the post-genocide era and the founding of Acumen Fund. It is all first-person perspective, as it needs to be, because these are events that shaped her experience and perspective on what works and what doesn't work in development efforts.

Jacqueline started out in international banking, and despite the prestige of that role, she found herself wanting to work to solve the world's problems. Interesting to me in particular was how she loved Brazil, from her first arrival in Rio de Janeiro on business.

"The minute I landed in Rio, I felt I'd arrived in a magical place that somehow already lived inside me."

While in Brazil, Ms. Novogratz became aware of the situation of street children. She went so far as to take a little boy into her hotel room for a bath, and then fed him at the hotel restaurant. The hotel manager wasn't too pleased, and nowadays I can think of all kinds of ways that a foreigner could get him/herself in trouble by taking this kind of action. Still, it shows the writer's heart.

"The street kids were a perfect embodiment of the poor as outsiders, as throwaway people in a world that didn't want to see them. I wondered what I could do to change that in some small way."

Her dreaming continued, and Jacqueline became increasingly uncomfortable with the routine life of climbing the corporate ladder. She knew that on the one hand she could enjoy some sense of financial security and professional accomplishment, but on the other hand there was a world out there in need that could drive her to take risks and become more than she ever thought possible.

"I didn't want to become old at 35 and knew instinctively that a combination of service and adventure could lead to a life of passion and constant renewal."

Without going too in-depth, the remainder of the book describes how she stumbled at first in Africa, and then found her place in Rwanda. She made mistakes, learned some important lessons, and saw the waste and mismanagement in traditional development efforts. Over time she developed a model of giving loans based on local ideas rather than grants to carry out a plan conceived without reference to needs and opportunities on the ground.

"By lending women money instead of giving handouts, we would signal our high expectations for them and give them the chance to do something for their own lives rather than waiting for the "experts" to give them things they might or might not need."

She was already out of the country when the genocide began, but as she watched the news accounts her heart was broken. Returning after stability was restored, she found that the surviving women with whom she had worked had played multiple roles. Some were victims, others perpetrators and still others were relatively passive.

The last part of the book describes in great detail how Acumen Fund came about, and how particular projects were selected for loans to get going. This organization does remarkable work, based on what she describes, and has been somewhat ahead of the curve on strategy in many ways.

That this is not a major literary work, I agree. I read the book on my Kindle and based on how long it took me to complete I assumed it must have been pretty thick in print. I was surprised afterward to find that in paperback form the book is only 306 pages long. There is some repetition in the book and a few of the examples could have likely been summarized or removed entirely. At the same time, The Blue Sweater is an inspiring and encouraging read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the intersection of philathropy and enrepreneurship in the developing world.

"After more than 20 years of working in Africa, India, and Pakistan, I've learned that solutions to poverty must be driven by discipline, accountability, and market strength, not easy sentimentality. I've learned that many of the answers to poverty lie in the space between the market and charity and that what is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them."