Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton- Review

This book was given to me by Dr. Gray Keller, and it is one of the most valuable books I’ve ever read. I consider it a must-read for anybody who purports to help other people in their job or free time. The book is rich with well-written arguments and examples of good and bad social programs. The lessons are summed up in what Lupton calls, “The Oath for Compassionate Service”:

  • Never do for the poor what they have the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergencies.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – often beneficiaries don’t want to seem ungrateful or risk losing support.
  • Do no harm.

Mr. Lupton lays out a number of clearly written rules to follow and ideas to keep in mind and backs them up in an engaging and informative way. One that I found most interesting was his list of “Social ROIs” to look for:

  • Are recipients assuming greater levels of control over their own lives or do they show up, year after year, with their hands out?
  • Is leadership emerging among those served?
  • Are their aspirations on the rise?
  • Is there a positive trajectory?

As I mentioned, to me this is one of the most important books out there for anybody looking to make a difference. It is only 191 pages but is packed full of wisdom and experience. Read it for yourself!


It Happened On the Way to War by Rye Barcott – Review

it happened on the way to war

It Happened on the Way to War is as valuable for its story of a young social entrepreneur fighting for success as it is for its advocation of participatory development. The book is the autobiographical account of a young US Marine named Ry Barcott who commits himself to the people of Kibera – Kenya’s largest slum – while also fulfilling his duty to the United States on tours of duty in the Middle East.

Barcott recounts the good and the bad of being a young person starting an organization abroad. He recounts the fundraising, the long nights and early mornings while also holding a full time job, the difficulty of leaving loved ones behind for extended periods, the difficulty of coming back home and trying to fit in, and the reasons why it’s all worth it in the end. Social entrepreneurs of any age will relate to Barcott’s struggles and also be humbled by them – few of ushave dealt with these issues while also serving overseas!

The book also highlights the value of activating and supporting local leaders. Barcott shows how local leadership is more sustainable, more cost-effective, and less colonial than relying on foreign leadership.

Start Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie – Overview


Continuing our Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development book series, today we’re reviewing “Start Something That Matters” by TOMS Founder Blake Mycoskie.

Start Something That Matters is to social entrepreneurship literature what TOMS is to social entrepreneurship: flashy, inspiring, popular, straightforward, and short on substance. I say that with no malice, I love TOMS – I own three pairs!

The book is a fun read with some creative ideas for young social entrepreneurs. There is no nitty-gritty about business start-up, development best practices, or the long-term impact of “Shoe Drops” on communities, but it is still a good read. Here’s a sampling of some of my favorite tips:

  • A social business must be able to answer three questions in one sentence each:
  1. What is the business?
  2. What is the cause?
  3. What do you want people to remember?
  • Ditch traditional titles – saying you’re the CEO just shows that you don’t have many people in your company. Creative titles are more memorable and can make it look like you’re part of something bigger.
  • Be a servant leader. If you are running an organization make it your job to help everyone else in the organization get their jobs done. Delegate as much as possible and then help people accomplish the work that has been delegated to them.

Overall this book is great for getting some inspiration and learning about how a  very cool company got started. It’s probably not going to teach you anything you couldn’t have thought of yourself and much of this advice is probably just Mycoskie’s personal preferences. However, it is an easy read that makes you dream big, and there is nothing more valuable than a big dream.

The Widsom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS by Elizabeth Pisani – Review


Don’t be turned off by the name of this book. It’s meant to catch your attention, and it is clear in reading the book that Pisani has the utmost respect for the people she has spent her life working with. If she has any contempt, it is for the people who continue to propagate myths about AIDS based on personal beliefs and agendas.

The Wisdom of Whores is one of the most interesting and fast-reading nonfiction books I’ve ever read. It is very issue specific – talking solely about HIV/AIDS as opposed to “development” more generally – but the lessons it teaches more generally about how money flows in the development community relate to all major issues. Some of those lessons learned include:

–  When an issue becomes “hot” organizations will flock to it and compete for cash.

–  Aid workers often feel pressure to keep their issue “hot” and will sometimes fudge statistics to keep it that way.

– If you don’t understand the root causes of an issue you’ll never solve it, and often times we don’t want to know the root causes.

After giving very well-written and easy to understand explanations of what HIV and AIDS are, the science behind them and the history of the diseases, Pisani spends most of the book discussing the last point – that with HIV/AIDS we won’t solve the problem until we admit its causes.

According to Pisani’s research, teaching abstinence has never been effective in the fight against AIDS. Additionally, East Africa is the only place where free condom programs have reduced AIDS rates. This is because East Africa is the only region where AIDS has spread as a result of high levels of sexual promiscuity. In Thailand AIDS has spread because of the prevalence of brothels and organized prostitution. The most effective AIDS reduction strategy in that country has been to legalize and regulate prostitution. In much of Europe AIDS spreads through drug addicts sharing needles. In these countries the most effective strategy has been funding free clean needle programs. In much of southeast Asia AIDS spreads quickly as a result of the regions booming transsexual community. Try raising money in America for programs dealing with those last two issues! It’s not easy, but it’s what works. The problem is it’s not what donors want to fund. So organizations fighting the disease often raise millions of dollars and then spend it on programs that sound good to donors but actually do nothing to reduce AIDS rates. The title’s of Pisani’s chapter give a pretty good indication of the topics and tone of her book:

1. Cooking Up an Epidemic

2. Landscapes of Desire

3. The Honesty Box

4. The Naked Truth

5. Sacred Cows

6. Articles of Faith

7. HIV Shoots Up

8. Ants in the Sugar-Bowl

9. Full Circle

Aside from offering a fantastic understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic this book thoroughly illustrates a general truth in development work: the best solutions are usually not the most popular. It’s often much easier to raise money for the wrong solutions, but in the long run those will only cause donor-fatigue and frustration.

Out of Poverty by Paul Polak – Overview

Out of Poverty by Paul Polak

Perhaps the most important lesson from “Out of Poverty” is that “people are poor because they don’t have money.” On the surface, this seems tautological. What Polak is arguing is that what many people identify as the causes of poverty – poor education, poor governance, poor health, poor access to resources – are all side effects of not having enough money. If poor people can find ways to make a little more money, they can use it to solve the aforementioned problems for themselves. Thus, poverty reduction programs should focus on helping poor people generate higher incomes.

Since the way out of poverty is through income generation, Polak offers three basic principles for the route out of poverty:

1. Most of the extremely poor people in the world earn their living now from one-acre farms.

2. They can earn much more money by finding ways to grow and sell high-value labor-intensive crops such as off-season fruits and vegetables.

3. To do that, they need access to very cheap small-farm irrigation, good seeds and fertilizer, and markets where they can sell their crops at a profit.

Polak urges us to think simple in creating solutions to poverty. After a life-time spent working with International Development Enterprises on small farm projects across the world, his input is invaluable. However, poor writing bogs down the important lessons in this book. The writing is repetitive and difficult to get through. In the end, reading a few well-written reviews and summaries is as valuable as reading the book in its entirety.

Ripples from the Zambezi by Ernesto Sirolli – Overview

ripples-from-the-zambeziRipples from the Zambezi is both a reflection on the true meaning of “development” and a step-by-step manual to a new way of thinking about personal and economic development. Enresto Sirolli  advocates for a model of development called “Enterprise Facilitation.” The phrase has been trademarked by the Sirolli Institute – which charges $5,000 per month to train and mentor a local facilitator in a community – but TPM will be running a program based on the ideas and principles of Enterprise Facilitation.

The book begins with a critique of traditional aid and the intellectual fallacies underlying these models. Three key ones are:

– This is the idea that the newest and most efficient technology for a given problem is the best solution to that problem. Sirolli argues that sometimes older technologies can actually be better for a given community. For example, giving a poor rural farmer a new tractor might seem like the best way to increase his/her productivity. However, the tractor will put the farmer in serious debt and will require expensive experts to repair and maintain it. Experts and parts may not be available. However, supplying a farmer with a donkey-powered plow may provide increased productivity with technologies more familiar to the farmer. Although it seems outdated to the western eye, this solution can keep the farmer out of debt and allow him/her to be independent of the need for mechanics and other experts.

Levels of Need – Traditional aid has focused on the material needs of its recipients. However, material wealth only really matters as far as the basic levels of need on Maslow’s Hierarcy – food, shelter, water etc. After we feel our basic needs are secure, getting more stuff doesn’t improve life. It’s hard for Americans to understand this – we take overconsumption for granted – but many people feel no more motivation to spend time making money after they have secured basic needs for themselves and their families. Quality aid should focus on the highest level of need: self-actualization. Helping people become what they were born to be leads to healthy, growing, fulfilled people. Healthy people create healthy societies.

Motivation – The last thing any development worker should ever be doing is motivating people. If you have to motivate people, it means you have a poorly designed program that they don’t believe in and don’t care much to be a part of.

In the next section of the book Sirolli offers a step-by-step explanation of how to implement an Enterprise Facilitation program and the outcomes that can be expected.

Essentially, an enterprise facilitator is a person in a community who works to help entrepreneurs grow or start their businesses. The key, as Sirolli puts it, is to “Shut up and listen!” The facilitator should not be an expert and should not have any sort of agenda or quota. His/her job is to make their services known and then wait for people to ask for assistance. The assistance provided is free and confidential. Facilitators help entrepreneurs to think through ideas, make connections, and find funding. They never personally provide funds and they never motivate the entrepreneur in any way.

Sirolli summarizes the essence of his vision:

I began to conceive a vision of a society that facilitates personal growth by assisting individuals in achieving what they wish to achieve. A Taoist bureaucracy which does nothing until asked, and then does a great deal. A ‘humble’ public servant that doesn’t plan how to build the ideal society but who is enchanted by the unique, idiosyncratic needs and abilities of the people that he serves and whose task would be to respond to individuals’ requests for assistance and provide the elements needed for that person to flower. – pg. 22

Ripples from the Zambezi provides a new way of thinking about the role of outsiders in economic development. The strength of the outsider is no longer that they are an “expert.” It is the opposite. They are a clean slate, free of any local biases, politics, or assumptions.

What do you pack for a year in Tanzania?


What do you pack for a year in Tanzania?

Packing – it’s the worst part of traveling. Most terrible travel experiences at least make for great storytelling later on. But even the best storytellers have a hard time making packing seem exciting. No memories made. No lessons learned. Just an empty bag and all the things you may or may not need.

Some people simplify the task by using one of two approaches. The first is to pack pretty much everything. For this group, if they have to leave home, they’re going to bring home with them. One drawback to this strategy is that it’s completely clunky. It’s not easy maneuvering the streets of busy cities with your material life in tow. Another drawback is that it takes away from the experience of traveling – getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing a place on its own terms. Along the same line, it totally makes you stick out. Coming into a place with more possessions in tow than other people own sets up a pretty awkward dynamic.

The second approach is to pack almost nothing. This is the kid on my seventh grade AAU basketball team who showed up at the airport for a weeklong tournament in Florida wearing his uniform. He hadn’t packed any bags but, in fairness, he had a change of socks in his pocket. Less extreme versions of this approach can actually be quite liberating for vacations. It’s nice to literally get away from all the things that bog us down in everyday life – not the least of which is all the stuff we own. However, for a long-term trip things get more complicated. I need to be able to maintain high levels of productivity and I like to keep a few comfort items with me for lonely days.

This trip, I’ll have one suit case of clothes that has one pair of work pants and one pair of nicer pants, a couple pairs of board shorts (they’re the best for traveling, perfect for any adventure), a few t-shirts (as much quick drying stuff as possible), a couple nice shirts for embassy/client meetings, some socks and underwear, a rain jacket, and a sweat shirt. But that’s the boring stuff that everyone has to bring. The more interesting stuff is the stuff that you don’t need but that you kind of want, or at least think would make life easier. It’s a fine line between bringing enough that you keep morale and productivity high, but not too much that you dilute your experience. Here’s what I’ll bring:

  1. A tablet computer (mine is a Windows Surface, I love it) with a discrete carrying case (mine is a satchel, India Jones has one). Tablets are much more portable than computers and have most of the functionalities you will need while overseas (Microsoft Excel, internet access, email, photo-editing, and a few others). It’s also nice to have a carrying case that doesn’t make it obvious you’re carrying around an expensive piece of equipment.
  2. Sure, those may look like an old pair of hand-painted TOMS Shoes. But they are actually my soccer shoes for Tanzania. Most of the other kids are barefoot, so I’m not at a disadvantage but I do keep my toenails on.
  3. Notebooks. It’s so important to write when you travel – especially when you are working while traveling. I like to keep separate notebooks to keep thoughts and experiences organized. I always have a personal notebook going while I travel, and this trip I’ll have notebooks about the entrepreneurs we are working with, the gardens we are starting, and information and contacts I gather about the lodge. It seems old fashioned, but notebooks never run out of power even if the electricity is out for weeks.
  4. Earlier this year I sat next to a nun on a flight. I told her about TPM and she told me about work she had done in Kenya and Tanzania. She was an amazing lady and we talked the whole time. At the end of the flight she gave me a small book of prayers from Saint Raphael – the Patron Saint of Travelers. I’ve carried it while traveling ever since. He also happens to be the Patron Saint of the blind and those seeking a spouse, perhaps those will be invoked later in life.
  5. Packing multi-use items saves space and clutter. I was happy to find boots that were solid enough to withstand the mud and work of village life but nice enough to wear when meeting embassy officials and potential lodge clients.
  6. “Ripples from the Zambezi” and “Small is Beautiful” are two of the most important development books ever written. I bring them (along with a couple others) with me so I can refer back to them constantly during our work.
  7. Hand-crank flashlights come in handy during extended power outages.
  8. I decided that while I’m making a number of life changes it’s a great time to actually start flossing every day. I’ll have to form a bunch of new habits anyway.
  9. Passport… any questions?
  10. A compass, so I can always find my way home. Having a compass opens up the possibility of some serious off-the-beaten-trail adventures.
  11. An unlocked international phone is crucial since it is your gateway to the internet in Tanzania. There’s no other way to get a signal.
  12. A map, like a compass, gives you much more mobility when planning adventures.
  13. I always keep my money in a clip in one place and my debit cards in my wallet somewhere else. That way if one gets stolen or goes missing I’ve still got the other.
  14. I’ve had this camera for five years and brought it to five continents. It may be old but it still takes great pictures and videos.
  15. An external hard drive to back everything up. We’ll be compiling lots of data about the effectiveness of initiatives as well as pictures and other media to assist in fundraising next year. We can’t afford to lose any of it!
  16. A miniature chess set is a great way to pass an afternoon. Fun fact: there is a chess teacher in Mkyashi. Once I get there they will have a student as well.
  17. Small mementos from loved ones.