The Blue Sweater is a story written by Jacqueline Novogratz about bridging the gap between rich and poor in an interconnected world.
The author tells a compelling story of how she left a career as an investment banker to work in the field of international development. She was assigned to projects in Africa, including countries such as Kenya and Rwanda, and through her work with UNICEF, she helped build enterprises which focused on helping the poorest people in Africa. One of her major accomplishments in Rwanda was to establish a micro-lending fund which had the goal of helping women becoming financially independent. Before she left Rwanda this firm had over 100.000 customers.
After leaving Rwanda, Novogratz started working with the Rockafeller foundation, teaching philanthropists the value of patient capital instead of charity. Her vision is that the poor are helped much better by helping them establish businesses by lending or investing and offering reasonable rates.
After leaving the Rockafeller Foundation, Novogratz started the Accumen fund which was a social investment fund that focused on helping entrepreneurs establish businesses or develop technologies that would help the poorest people in the world. Accumen fund has invested and lent to companies in India, Pakistan and other countries, affecting over 125 million people.
A few key points
The women of Africa neither need nor want to be saved
This was the first lesson that Jacqueline learned when starting to work in international development. When she first arrived as a naïve 25 year old blond woman from the United States, the women who were her co-workers resented her and everything she stood for. Here was a foreigner who had no experience working in Africa, who was there to lead projects based in Africa that the locals were obviously not trusted for. The projects had to do with helping African women, and the co-workers were all strong and independent African women! Who wouldn’t be resentful in this scenario?
This is a part of a bigger issue, where all the good people of the western world believe that they need to come to lesser developed countries to share their wealth and wisdom. But what people fail to understand is that the people of Africa don’t want to be Western. They want to be healthy and improve their lives on their own terms.
The author quickly learned from her mistakes and started listening and instead of working from an angle of “I’m here to help you” she started actually working with the women, trying to find common ground and common goals.
Business and social development can and should work together
You can make a for-profit business even though you serve the poor. The micro-lending industry lends money with interest even though the customers are some of the poorest people on earth. Another example is how a man in India set out to sell irrigation systems to the poorest farmers in India to help them increase their crop. What such a business needs is patient capital and a clear mission. An entrepreneur can trade some of the expected yields in return for real social progress if he or she wants to. Many examples in the book show this.
Patient capital, not grants
The author describes many scenarios that she has been in and they always lead back to this. The poor don’t need grants to rise out of poverty. They need patient capital, reasonable interests and someone to believe in them. A grant can be good to start but when you give out money, people start depending on it and it provides no real incentive to actually use the grant to build a profitable business. A grant demands no repayments and it demands no real show of progress. A loan, however has to be repaid. It demands that the recipients priorities it’s attention when making the business and tries to make it profitable to be able to both pay back the loan and to keep building the profits for his or her own gain. And if you fail to repay your loan, you will not get another one.
My problem with The Blue Sweater
In so many ways the author and I have exactly the same views. The book is full of valuable insights and inspiring stories that should ignite a fire in anyone interested in international development. However the book annoyed me and I struggled to go through it. I think one of the reasons is because she tries too hard to paint a picture of the people she worked with as kind, caring and brilliant individuals.
When every person she talks about has a hearty laugh and glittering eyes reminiscent of a much younger person, the description becomes tiring. In that way, the author falls into the pit of her own naivety where she tries to convince the reader of the good work instead of focusing on convincing through the success of the actions taken.
I liked The Blue Sweater. I thought the ideas she proposes and many of them are like my own. I will definitely use some of them in the future. However the book is quite long and goes into great and vivid details. Therefore it becomes quite tiring and hard to actually finish. Maybe it could have been summarized better. But the author does get some free passes since she’s really a specialist in the field, not a professional author.
The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz is a book for anyone interested in charity, philanthropy and international development. It is filled with ideas and examples on how to do things right, told with the words of someone who has seen it all.