May 2009

Guy Cunningham

nonfiction

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Jacqueline Novogratz

Jacqueline Novogratz’s memoir The Blue Sweater is an almost evangelical work. The author, founder of a nonprofit venture-capital firm called the Acumen Fund, has lived an idealistic life, leaving a potentially lucrative career with Chase Manhattan to concentrate on solving the problems of the world’s poorest places. Not content to simply recount her adventures abroad, Novogratz uses the emotional impact of her story to challenge readers, declaring: “There is reason to believe that people everywhere can lift themselves up, but they have to be given the tools to do so.” It is an optimistic book, and one senses she wouldn’t be disappointed if it inspired (more than) a few readers to follow her career path.

As you can imagine, during her more than twenty years traveling the world, she has met all sorts of people -- ranging from young women living in the direst of poverty to one of the accused leaders of the Rwandan genocide -- and she seamlessly weaves many of their stories into her own. As she explains, “Anecdotes are powerful in that they show possibility,” and it is through the voices of others that Novogratz is at her most compelling.

This is particularly true of Novogratz’s handling of the tragedy of Rwanda. Though the general story has been told elsewhere, most notably in Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Novogratz fills out that story by revealing the vibrant society that existed before the genocide. She lived in the country for several years in the late eighties and early nineties, helping to create Duterimbere -- a microcredit organization for poor women (and later men) -- as well as several smaller projects, including a bakery run by women in the city of Kigali. Rwanda becomes a literal symbol of the good Novogratz hopes to accomplish when she discovers a young boy on the streets of Kigali wearing the blue sweater of the book’s title -- a sweater the author had personally donated to Goodwill more than a decade earlier (her name was even still written on the tag).

Of course, a few years after she left the country, Rwanda infamously erupted into violence. In only 100 days, a full 800,000 people were killed (out of a population of only 8 million), most of them members of the country’s Tutsi minority. Years later, Novogratz returned to Rwanda to reunite individually with the women she worked with at both Duterimbere and the bakery. Their experiences range from that of victims of the horror to (alleged) enablers and leaders. Novogratz uses these women’s stories to give us a look inside the genocide itself.

Perhaps the best illustration of this is Novogratz’s discussion of Agnes, a fellow Duterimbere founder who went on to become the minister of justice for the government responsible for the killings. Novogratz make a point of seeking out Agnes, saying:

I wanted to understand her story. I had known her and worked with her on issues of social justice. She had been a woman of enormous potential, a pioneer in the women’s movement, a role model for African women… [I]t was inexplicable to me that Agnes could end up a leader of such a cruel and murderous regime. If she could become part of a killing machine, then the capacity for evil was more common than uncommon.

This willingness to face unpleasant realities is the book’s greatest strength. It also leads Novogratz to some genuine insights about philanthropy. Her first experience in Africa, working at the African Development Bank in Cote d’Ivoire, ends in failure, as Novogratz is unable to connect with the local women she wants to help. She is very blunt in assessing just what went wrong, quoting one of her detractors, an African woman named Aisha, at length:

“We don’t hate you,” Aisha responded. “We actually like that you’re a nice girl with much to offer. What we hate is what you represent. The North comes to the South and sends a young white girl without asking us what we want, without seeing if we already have the skills we need. And this from an organization that says it wants to promote solidarity. We’ve seen this too many times before. Africa will never change if it’s always like this.”

Novogratz applies this lesson (and others like it) to the book itself, always listening carefully and avoiding the temptation to pontificate. This keeps her narrative grounded enough that her idealism never seems naïve or misplaced. She doesn’t want to “save” the developing world, only help the people of the developing world acquire the tools to “save” themselves. She does this by combining elements of venture capitalism and traditional philanthropy to help people in the developing world build sustainable businesses. As she explains: “Philanthropy alone lacks the feedback mechanisms of markets, which are the best listening devices we have; and yet markets alone too easily leave the most vulnerable behind.” This book attempts to find a middle ground between the two; though the constraints of the memoir format make it difficult to judge the effectiveness of this approach to poverty, it makes enough of a case to inspire the reader’s respect.

Novogratz is not a master stylist, and she does lean on clichés in places, whether she is “learning to listen with [her] heart and not just [her] head,” acting “like a deer caught in the headlights,” or realizing “the future really is ours to create.” But on the main, her unadorned voice works, because it allows the stories of others to come through. This is a generous memoir, offering us multiple voices and stories. Those looking to work in the nonprofit sector will especially benefit from this approach, as the book presents a full picture of both the highs and lows of a career in aid and the rich diversity of the developing world.

The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World by Jacqueline Novogratz
Rodale Books
ISBN: 1594869154
272 Pages