The Blue Sweater
By Jacqueline Novogratz
I was standing in a small village, in the Northwest corner of Ghana, West Africa, just steps from the Mali border. I, my son Willy and our traveling party had just traveled ten hours over butt numbing roads from the city of Kumasi, a bustling, cheerful, sprawling metropolis of about two million people and growing daily. In Kumasi we had been told that the average income for a Ghanaian was about US $2 a day, maybe $60 a month. As I looked around I remembered that averages were made up of the high and the low, and only on rare occasion represented a true middle. What we were looking at in this village, as is thousands just like it was the lower part of the equation. These villagers who worked hard were fortunate to approach even $1 a day in earnings. There income level, however, was not something you could discern from their big smiles, ready high-fives and sincere hugs. And we, from the west on a mission to help, at that moment were feeling pretty helpless.
In The Blue Sweater, Acumen Fund director Jacqueline Novogratz spins the story of her life from college woman to banker to expatriate worker in Africa and India who would parlay her myriad experience to launch an entire new genre of social service and social justice institution. Novogratz was to become a major innovator, leader and philanthropist turning the non-profit work, literally upside down. Novogratz shared, in most dramatic and poignant ways, her life in Africa and India. The daily experience was one adventure, hardships, exhilaration and betrayal. As she met and built relationships with the powerful women of Africa Novogratz was absorbingnew ways to lift people out of the crushing poverty so many experience. She saw courage, determination, character and pure joy. All of which was tempered with the reality of poverty, partriarchy and oppression. Somewhere in the first quarter of the book the author reveals the inspiration for the title, The Blue Sweater. Her anecdote reminded me why I don’t believe anything is a coincidence. Mid-way through the book Jacqueline began revealing the inspirations for what would become the Acumen Fund and how they would invest instead of give. One example that struck me personally was of an African entrepreneur they funded and advised who was able to furnish 60-million treated mosquito nets a year through many parts of Africa. A part of my experience in Ghana that left me feeling so helpless were several long days of passing our treated mosquito nets in remote village. We purchased the nets in Kumasi from a Ghanaian merchant, they were manufactures in The Netherlands. We had a nurse with us, to help with minor treatments and to and pass out basic medications for malaria, infections and other common (life threatening) ailments. They were exhausting but rewarding days. The major downside, however, was the fact that in each village, we only had enough nets to meet the needs of young children and pregnant mothers, the two groups judged to be at most risk. And even then, we would run out of nets before we ran our of moms. How hard it was to turn away people whose very lives and well being could be saved or enhanced by a simple $8 low tech device. And how disheartening is was when we heard that often the nets were taken home and displayed in a place of honor in the home so all could see the gift they received from the Americans. We learned that despite our best intentions and the warm welcomes, simply waltzing into a village and handing out our preconceived “solutions” was not and effective way to inspire lasting social change.
Novogratz shares her many years of experience in delivering well-meaning philanthropy in this powerful, inspiring and refreshing work. Novogratz challenges her readers rethink long-held premises of philanthropy. It’s very clear that part of Jacqueline’s mission in the Blue Sweater is to introduce readers to a new way of thinking about dealing with the large part of the world that does not share in the benefit of the bulk of its resources. She introduces us to profit/loss thinking for the nonprofit world. She talked about accountability and about helping people learn how to help themselves. She makes her point beautifully. But most of the time she sweeps us up into the context of her marvelous life journey. We meet characters, antagonists, good guys and really, really bad guys (mostly women in both cases). We feel her pain, her frustration, her longing and ultimately her joy. She gives us much insight into her time in Rwanda as she formed strong bonds with emerging women leaders. She then returns to Rwanda after the genocide and takes us with her on a journey as she reconnects with women from her earlier life there and tries to process how the women whom she knew so well and loved so much could be part of such evil and mayhem.
I love her story telling. I also appreciate Novogratz’s teaching. From her diverse times in Africa, Manhattan, Stanford and India, Jacqueline pieces together example and observation that puts a new spin on solving poverty and empowerment issues. She finds people who bring to bear on the issues of poverty the profit motive, entrepreneurship, accountability principles to bring the poorest of the poor clean water, efficient farming, mosquito nets, medication and other essential needs. She point out the power of seeing the world’s most poor as customers, rather than recipients of handouts. She shows how to invest in the people who can find the solutions to come up with solutions that scale as opposed to proving handouts that run out when the donor moves on.
The story of the Acumen Fund is inspiring. I do believe anyone reading this book will be affected in a couple of ways. You are certain to be will be highly entertained, or at risk of being moved and changed. Most likely it will be both.
Jacqueline Novogratz speaks at the TED conference….