FAITH IN ACTION
By Katherine Marshall
Jane, a Kenyan woman, showed off her brand new house to Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of the Acumen Fund, which had financed the housing development. She was justifiably proud. Starting with nothing, Jane worked and saved for years to escape the Mathere Valley slum community where she used to live. Jane exuberantly demonstrated the wonders of her toilet.
For Novogratz this was a truly a spiritual moment. My curiosity piqued by the association between sanitation and spirituality, we spoke about how religion ties into Acumen’s work.
It’s a fascinating path from sanitation challenges in the Mathere Valley slum to Acumen’s spirituality of respect. Poverty has a vivid face in a slum. Filthy water breeds disease and the burdens of primitive sanitation are particularly harsh for women. Little about life is left to the imagination. Use of plastic bags for sanitation (flying toilets, they call them, because the bags are tossed everywhere) illustrates graphically the harsh realities of slum life. That’s why Jane’s new toilet is such a powerful symbol of her new life.
Yet countless well-intentioned projects fizzle and disappoint. Novogratz is especially wary of the low expectations that can go with charity – mushy measurements of progress, acceptance of sloppy bookkeeping, failure to repay. Her life journey has given her a robust skepticism. While everyone needs a compassionate ear and a hand up sometimes, she sees good intentions too often paving a road to failure or mediocrity.
Novogratz is an advocate instead of what she calls “patient capitalism”, essentially capitalism with modified expectations and well adapted financial instruments. Her approach relies on a blend of discipline, entrepreneurship, and high expectations.
Novogratz is refreshingly honest about her own disappointments along the way. They have made her deeply wary of simplistic solutions. Poverty, like life, is complicated. Astute, constant listening and learning is her mantra. You have to work with people to find the right solutions, whether it is about eye care or improving sanitation.
Through her work in Rwanda, Kenya, Gambia, India, Pakistan and many other countries, Novogratz has fine tuned an approach that is supremely idealistic and eminently practical. In 2001, she founded the Acumen Fund, which invests in projects that benefit poor communities. With an impressive set of successes, the Fund aims now to increase the scale of its operations and to share its lessons and approach.
The Acumen Fund approach relies on capital and market discipline, but capital is invested not for “undue profit” but to create opportunities for others. It builds on the strengths of communities. “Capital can be used to draw us close or to distance us from one another. Traditional societies that forbid usury want to ensure the group stays together and supports one another. The sub-prime debt phenomenon, on the other hand, is a powerful example of using capital in a way that distances. Wall Street investors had no stake in whether homeowners repaid their mortgages as they thought they were “safe” up to a certain default rate. Borrowers had no relationship with a traditional banker. The system was bankrupt of values and accountability.”
The Acumen Fund approach is about opportunity, solutions, and high expectations. It’s also about patience and determination. “Patient capital” is a cornerstone of a new social contract, a more nuanced type of capitalism for our 21st century world. And, with its understanding of the realities of slums and challenges like lack of toilets, its investments focus on areas that can transform lives, like housing developments, small enterprise, water systems, and manufacture of mosquito nets.
Finance and spirituality, faith and sanitation are unabashedly mixed in the way that Novogratz sees the challenges of poverty. She is irate about the huge gaps between rich and poor. And she has a deep faith that today we truly can end it and that, in an interconnected world, we have a deep responsibility to help those in need.
Novogratz’s language is full of spiritual allusions, and her life story is full of churches, mosques, nuns and imams as well as bankers and engineers. She is a creative entrepreneur, a persuasive advocate for new financial instruments. More telling, to me, is her powerful advocacy for setting high expectations for social change and urging the discipline and creativity that go with the deep complexity of the challenge. As she argues, nothing is more important than believing in what is possible, but also listening and learning as we forge ahead.
You can listen to Jacqueline Novogratz on the January 28, 2010 program of Krista Tipett’s Speaking of Faith, watch her TED talk, and read her life story in The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World.
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, a Visiting Professor, and a senior advisor for the World Bank.
To read more about charity and religion go to Patheos.com
By Katherine Marshall |
March 1, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
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