Popular discourse on poverty is dominated by two archetypes: the well-intentioned jholawala with his eternal belief in “welfare schemes” and the hard-nosed tiewala with his firm trust in free-market reforms. Between the two, debates on poverty mitigation far too often get stuck in an endless loop of ineffectual solutions. The biggest feat of The Blue Sweater is precisely that its author, Jacqueline Novogratz, manages to combine the rigour of the marketplace with the compassion of welfare programmes to crack the poverty code.
Written as a first-hand account, the book charts the journey of Novogratz as she leaves a promising career in banking to dedicate her life to understanding global poverty and “powerful ways of tackling it”.
It all starts with a cherished blue sweater that she donates to a charity organisation as an adolescent only to find it on a young African boy some 11 years later. The sweater’s complex journey from Virginia to Kigali, Rwanda, serves as an early metaphor for Novogratz, which speaks of the interconnected world we inhabit — one in which it’s difficult to escape shared accountability.
The discovery of the sweater also renews her sense of purpose as she sets out to better understand what stands between the wealthy and the poor. Her journey begins in Africa, where she spends a considerable period travelling across the continent as a consultant for the World Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).
As a 20-something, Novogratz is your typical idealist who’s out to change the world. But thankfully, she knows that ideas – no matter how well-intentioned – aren’t enough. She makes a strong case for developing a mindset beyond charity and giveaway programmes — her experience tells her time and again that many such programmes simply fail because they don’t consider realities on the ground. So, a $1-million programme for buying maize mills to reduce the workload of West African women fails because once the mills break down, few people know how to repair them. Or because the lack of diesel required to fuel these mills has not been taken into consideration.
Seeing such big-ticket projects fail, Novogratz realises the power of investing in people, not programmes. Her long stint in emerging markets and microfinance firmly establishes her belief in “patient capitalism” — because the developing world needs “management skills” and a chance to control its future.
With all its insights and the pertinent questions it raises and answers, the book should easily figure in the must-read list of all social entrepreneurs or anyone venturing into the development sector. However, it falters as a memoir for its over-reliance on obvious portraits. Smitten by the developing world, Novagratz reminds us too often of its radiant and colourful people and their warm hearts that triumph over hardship on a daily basis. Although you never doubt her sincerity or question her empathy, it does deprive her characters of the kind of depth and range that could have made them memorable.
She manages to break that monotony a little in the chapters covering her return to Rwanda after the genocide. There she meets both the perpetrators and the victims of the mass murders. The story of Agnes, a woman Novogratz had worked with at the microfinance institution she helped set up in Rwanda, reveals the confusing nature of crime and what drives people to commit unfathomable acts of cruelty. Sure enough, the encounter reinvigorates the author’s belief in “providing incentives to people to do the right thing”.
In the following chapters, Novogratz details her effort to match her idealism with her knack for implementing effective solutions. She founds the Acumen Fund, in 2001, which invests in entrepreneurs “who have vision and the ability to solve local problems with market-driven ideas and approaches”. The organisation has since invested more than $50 million in 50 companies across five countries.
The minutiae of setting up and sustaining an organisation in the philanthropic sector make for slightly dreary reading. Nevertheless, Novogratz sets out a number of definite solutions that ought to rouse policy makers and proponents of free markets towards reforming capitalism as it is currently practised. At a time when even the prosperous West is dealing with multiple crises that trace their roots to inept governance, Novogratz’s sagacious voice, as that of others working to uplift the poor, should find more takers.
THE BLUE SWEATER
Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
314 pages; Rs 399