This book was waiting at the library for me when I returned from Africa. It had been recommended based on my previous reads on Goodreads (like movies on Netflix are recommended based on what you have previously watched). The timing couldn’t have been better as I still had images of Kenya and the people I met there fresh in my mind. The first part of the book is autobiographical and describes the author’s journey over 20 years working in the developing world – both the mistakes she made and the hard-won successes. The second part of the book, which I found more interesting, describes how she has used those experiences to invest venture capital into a fund that subsidizes new ideas and entrepreneurs. There are multiple examples where the poor are seen not as charity, but as customers for new business ventures. Coated bed nets that prevent malaria are everywhere in Africa – over hospital beds, in hotel rooms, in mud huts. Giving them for free to every household is impossible, especially since they need to be replaced every 3-5 years. However, a large supply of nets were initially given for free to homes with small children, as they are the most susceptible to death from malaria. Once Africans saw the benefit of the free bed nets, they were much more willing to spend their hard earned money on nets for other members of their family. Businesses invested in them to give to their workers, as it reduced the number of sick days for employees. Many of the bed nets are now produced in African factories, which provide jobs to minimally skilled workers. If the initial capital hadn’t been invested in the manufacture and distribution of free nets, none of the subsequent sustainable enterprises would have evolved.
What does this mean for how we should view charitable activities closer to home? Shouldn’t we use the same model here in the United States to involve the recipients of charity to be part of the solution and not just the receiver of charity? Instead of preparing a meal for the homeless and then cleaning the kitchen, why not involve them in the process of choosing the menu, preparing the food and helping to clean. We could sit with them at the meal and share our stories. We would still need to use outside funds to procure the food, but much less outside involvement to prepare and serve the food. A “hand-up” rather than a “hand-out” solution. Certainly the way that much of charitable giving is currently performed leaves the receiver in a dependency mode, waiting for the next action from the giver. Breaking this cycle involves asking difficult questions of both sides. Are we ready for the answers?