Over the years I’ve spent more than my share of time in the Salt Lake City Airport, center of the Mormon universe and an exporter of missionaries. I vacillate between being amused by naive youths sent off to ‘educate’ other cultures and just being angry at the sheer hubris of their sense of superiority. I approached Jacqueline Novogratz’s book, The Blue Sweater with the same ambivalence. Ms. Novogratz tells the story of her personal journey to help poor people and to make aid to the afflicted more effective.
It’s an awkwardly constructed book; the first third covers Ms. Novogratz’s coming of age realization that the lessons learned in the gilded towers of finance just may not be practical, pragmatic or welcome to someone in Africa who has no earthly use for abstract accounting principals. At the heart of the book is the story of a maturing woman who is learning respect for individuals and who is learning to think and act from their perspective. The finale of the book discusses the creation of the worthy Acumen Foundation and appears to have been written by committee as all of Ms. Novogratz’s personal voice has vanished.
I don’t believe Ms. Novogratz set out to write a Pulitzer winning book; I think she earnestly wants to tell the world what she has learned: that throwing money at the needy will not solve the problem. A person who is invested in an enterprise from a financial and emotional standpoint will benefit more than someone who is given a handout. That well-meaning people should have the open mindedness to listen to those who work in the field and live the day-to-day challenges. That respect opens many doors.
Lasting change comes about so slowly that you may not even notice it until one day people in Kigali Rwanda are buying cakes at work from women who carry bright orange buckets, and these women who never had a job, a face outside the home, now have the self confidence to march into an office and sell the cakes. And one day, that all seems quite normal and the way it has always been, and that’s when there has been a seismic shift that no one has noticed. And even after the unimaginable horrors of the Rwanda genocide, that kernel of self respect remained intact.
The philosophy of philanthropy that Ms. Novogratz embraces requires more hands-on time in the field; it relies on microfinance with its tiny increments of profit and self reliance. But in the end it can lead to a more stable and satisfying change.
As the U.S. lurches through this turbulent time, where domestic poverty, unemployment, lack of skills and education are mounting problems, it would be a good time for political and social leaders to read The Blue Sweater and start to develop plans that will engage and reignite self respect and reliance.