Aww, so the little white girl wants to make a difference? Or: The intimidating world of changing the worldJune 1, 2010
Plenty of young people have dreams of changing the world, making a difference, having a purpose in the wider world. Realizing this goal seems more accessible the more the world shrinks, as if maybe through our interconnectedness and supposed knowledge of each other we can somehow bring about change, that we’ve learned enough to avoid the pitfalls of those before us who wanted to abolish poverty or illiteracy or some other plight of humanity. But an overflow of information can also have the opposite effect; can make us think we have all the answers before we even set foot in someone else’s country and culture. Even with the very best of intentions, and the most endearing empathy for others, compassion alone can bring no large-scale result. The flip side is an all-brains approach, with its theories and algorithms and–if you’re really serious–some language skills to really work with the people of the global community. Take all that, and it’s still not enough. You also need really thick skin.
Jacqueline Novogratz learned this the hard way. Walking in to the African Development Bank for her first day on the job in Côte d’Ivoire in 1986, she received stony glares from African women in immensely colorful dress, and felt the part of an uptight librarian in her skirt-and-blouse combo and glasses. “I hadn’t expected to encounter poisoning and voodoo among women bankers in Africa,” she says, but after a week or two, that is exactly what was faced her. As most would, when she took a job with a development company in Africa, she had been imagining something more along the lines of sitting on the ground with women in a rural village; instead, she was facing somewhat powerful and relatively wealthy women who hated what she represented: white people from the economic “North” (read: developed world), who sat in their offices thousands of miles away and wrote up plans for improving the African continent while sipping $4 lattes.
This is a stereotype, of course, but as the women she encounters there argue, how can Africa ever stand on its own without Africans leading the changes, with the knowledge of their world and their ways. What kind of organization promotes solidarity by neglecting to ask the opinions of the people most dedicated to fixing their nations’ problems, instead deciding to send in a young, white woman without first seeing whether the skills were already there. Regardless of the role Novogratz was supposed to play, and regardless of her most earnest intentions, her position there did not work out; but the feeling was mutual: she smiled daily at the street vendors during her time in Cote d’Ivoire without every getting to understand how they lived. “I’d wanted to know who low-income people were so I could be of greater service, but I had spent most of my time [in Africa so far] in big institutions with people who chattered and hobnobbed at conferences and did very little listening.”
Long story short, Novogratz is today the CEO of Acumen Fund, which has successfully invested in local businesswomen in the form of microloans that have proven effective ways of empowering those who cannot start businesses or get loans the traditional way. She emphasizes loans instead of donations, proving to be a more sustainable approach, one which invests in the skills and integrity of real merchants and artisans in a bottom-up way. She has also spoken at TED about her real belief that poverty can be abolished, her determination founded not in naive idealism but in experienced optimism and creative thinking. She also wrote a book, The Blue Sweater, chronicling how it all happened. (Listen to the amazing story of her beloved Blue Sweater, and what it taught her about the world.)
I have not finished reading the book yet, but one of the most striking things I’ve discovered is how harshly the world can hit that little white girl with a big heart and some education, who wants to make a difference and see the world while she’s at it. Novogratz spent three days writhing on the bathroom floor after a reception she’d attended with the women of her development banking office, unable to drink even water; whether this was a coincidental illness or a moderate dose of poison, the event was ominous and painful. And the world is ominous and painful, especially for poverty-stricken women in villages and cities around the world, but also for little white girls who venture out into it.
I’m not comparing the experiences of these two types of women at all, I am simply observing through Novogratz’s experience the heart-breaking rejection the world can serve even when you bring it everything you’ve got. We question, once again, the outsider’s role in development and economies not our own. We question the very goal we have set out to achieve–making a difference–and many have dismissed it as impossible. Novogratz has not, and she is an inspiration. I read of the discrimination she faced and literally question my own courage and confidence. I question whether I would have even risen from the floor; I like to think so, but sometimes I am victim my own doubts, which seemed exponential in her shoes. Even when things started to turn towards positive progress, she was still communicating in French, far away from her family and home, and living in the pre-internet world of letter-writing. In Rwanda, where she found a more welcoming evironment and was helping to create a microfinance company for women there, she still had boughts of doubt and despair:Starting anything new is an all-encompassing proposition, and typically I worked 16-hour days. Doing this in a different language, in a place far from home, where navigating even simple things could thwart the best intentions challenged me to my bones. There were plenty of nights when the sheer injustice of the world in which I lived would come crashing down. With no mean of communication other than letters, a sense of isolation would envelope me, and there were nights that ended in tears of tiredness and sadness for a world that didn’t seem to want to see the possibilities right there in front of it. In those time, I would turn to music. Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Cat Stevens began to feel like good friends on lonely nights.
I crack so easily over my own trials and am such an emotional person when I’m talking about things I’m passionate about, I honestly think I would have broke down crying in front of those intimidating, strong, hardened, female African bankers. What things they have faced that I’ve never had to face myself! And then, even if I began to make progress with a new job in a new country, as Novogratz did, the work is still accompnaied by doubts and tribulations aplenty, and you go about witnessing hardships while struggling against the established status quo. This difficulty intimidates me to my core. The world of changing the world is scary, messy, disheartening business. But Novogratz never gave up hope; for it is also rewarding, enlightening, and after everything, beneficial to the people who need it the most– if you’ve got a smart plan. And great compassion. And, really, if you’re tough enough. I hope that if such an opportunity or chance position comes my way, I’m brave enough–and also crazy enough–to take it.