Monday, 12 October 2009

Reading Rainbow: The Blue Sweater

Jenny inspired me to write a book report on my latest read, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. Book reports used to be one of my favourite parts of being in school, so even though I'm not getting graded on this, know that I'm taking great pleasure in it.

In a nutshell, the books documents the journey of a twenty-something idealist as she learns to change the world with a 'soft heart and a hard head' (ie sentiment alone isn't helpful). It does it in a way that's inspirational rather than preachy, and I welled up twice.

I really enjoyed this book because of all the stories Jacqueline tells. In 1987 she went to Rwanda for two years to help set up a lending programme with and for poor women, and the characters really suck you into their lives. When she goes back after the genocide and meets with the survivors she'd worked with, it's fascinating to see how each played a part in the horrors of 1994 - as victim, perpetrator and bystander. One of the women who worked to set up the programme had played a senior role in the genocide, and it's interesting to hear how people who've done amazing things for good can morph because of power and do awful things.

I also liked her emphasis on listening to what the people you're trying to help are saying, rather than thinking you know all the answers. This should be obvious, but isn't. It reminds me of the entry in the Stuff White People Like blog about how white people (or any middle-class person for that matter) like knowing what's best for poor people. I had to laugh how this entry mentions that white people like to think that if poor people could, they'd all shop at Whole Foods rather than McDonalds or Wal-Mart, just because that's what white people like. Jacqueline is constantly saying that instead of telling people what they should do, we should listen to what they want to do.

She tells a story of trying to distribute mosquito nets to tackle the huge problem of malaria in a certain African country (I think Tanzania). Instead of just distributing them for free and watching them get unused or become ineffective after six months, she works with a local producer and distributor to sell them at market value. She hires reps to sell them to local women in a fashion very similar to Tupperware parties. Her most effective rep gives her sales pitch, convincing the women they need one because the nets are beautiful, show you love your family, and keep the bugs from buzzing in your face all night. Then she demonstrates how easy and luxurious it is to use. In her sales pitch, there's no mention of should. People in the developing world are people just like us, and respond better to things like beauty, dignity and comfort rather than being told what to do.

I think it's refreshing to hear about how capitalism can be harnessed for good, but needs to be harnessed. Depending on the point of view, capitalism is either seen as completely evil or else the be-all-end-all magic bullet to every world problem. It's of course neither, and I like how the author recognises how to use market forces for good.

I think this is a good book for anybody to read, whether you're bent on changing the world, exhuasted trying to or completely apathetic. If you do read it, let me know what you think.

Anyone read any good books lately, noble or not?


Nadine said...

Sounds like a fascinating book! I love what she did with the mosquito nets!

The books I've read recently aren't noble, but I've been enjoying them. I'm slowly making my way through the whole Sue Grafton series (A is for Alibi, etc).

As for the best book I've read recently, The Thirteenth Tale.

Kirsten Joris said...

Hey, I'm enjoying having a browse of your blog! It's all new territory to me-blogging, I think it's great!
I've read a fantastic novel lately, it's called 'The other Hand' by Chris Cleave, without giving too much away it is full of suspense, it's about the ordinary and the extraordinary and how they meet... I literally couldn't put it down- I think you'd like it.

Kirsten Joris said...

Hey Alisha! Enjoyed having a peak at your blog! This is all new territory to me- like it alot!
I read an awesome book lately 'The Other Hand' by Chris Cleave, it's a novel and without giving too much away it's full suspense, the everyday ordinary and the extra ordinary. It's a must read! I literally couldn't put it down. I think you'll like it.

alisha said...

Thanks for the book recommendation Kirsten and can't wait to see you next weekend!

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