The business of changing the world (book review)

It may be a bit unusual to start my book review with a link to another review, but it was Duncan Green who sparked my interest in The Business of Changing the World-How Billionaires, Tech Disrupters, and Social Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the Global Aid Industry with his critical review.

Basically, I agree with Duncan’s critical take on the book.
When I read Kumar’s book I was often reminded of a dinner event at an elite university where every Thursday the international relations society invites a high profile speaker who pitches their industry to the next generation of future global innovative resourceful leaders: Last week, the State Department pitched foreign service, next week a senior executive from a tech company will talk about expanding their services to the ‘bottom billion’ and this week it is Raj Kumar’s turn to ‘sell’ the aid industry.
As a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Kumar knows how to create a sales pitch in a way that to me as European seems uniquely American-and unfortunately quite flawed at times.

The aid industry (…) is fast becoming a global industry in which startups and social entrepreneurs challenge the power and influence of foreign aid agencies in Washington, London and Brussels.

Now the individual in need, not the project, is becoming the main unit of activity.

Rewarding what works is unleashing creative new approaches to solving the world’s biggest problems

Delivering results for the world’s poorest people now entails a new way of understanding poverty, hunger, disease, lack of education, and other social ills
These are all quotes from one of the first pages of the book (p.3) and they set the overall tone: Many statements are not wrong-but they are also not quite right and often lack numbers, scale, other evidence to back up claims and a view from the critics.
This seems odd, given that Kumar is the CEO of DevEx and sits on a treasure trove of data about companies, job opportunities, candidates and general insights into the aid industry. It often seems that he is writing about the change he would like to see rather than providing an accurate state of the art and overview for students, newcomers to development or interested ‘civilians’.

Will billionaires save us all?
Kumar’s big topic is ‘the billionaire effect’ and ‘disrupters with deep pockets’.
If you followed the MIT-Epstein scandal you may be inclined to think ‘blimey, that idea did not age so well…’.
‘It’s hard to overstate the impact of these billionaires’ (p.21) on the global good and the chapter unfolds with a staccato of initiatives, ideas and innovations that somehow involved billionaires.

The Gateses want an aid industry that works. (…) But to achieve their goals, they need everyone from UNICEF to the World Bank to do their jobs, to have the funding they need and be able to recruit the best talent, to be data driven and results oriented (p.33).
I agree-but statements like this conveniently masked that members states, governments, political leaders and bilateral donors, in short: politics, still lie at the core of the development business. And we have not even started to talk about humanitarian aid and the complexities of war, violence and displacement…

The next chapter, ‘The demand for results’, starts with…Nicholas Negroponte and One Laptop Per Child:
‘The program, perhaps unsurprisingly in retrospect, fell short of its goals’ (p.42) and Kumar mentions some shortcomings-but should this example not have raised a bigger debate about the billionaire-elite university-impact-industrial complex? Why is it ‘unsurprising’ that OLPC failed when the Bezos, Zuckerbergs & Gateses of the world follow a similar path to scale their ideas and projects?

But Kumar also imagines a changing business for NGOs:

Small, nimble companies and NGOs are taking advantage of this shift (of many potential funders), building global brands even when their operational scale is a fraction of that of some of the traditional players (p.49).
Well, I guess WFP will soon have competition delivering supplies to Yemen, medical start-ups will compete with MSF over patients in field clinics in Afghanistan and DfID’s work in the Central African Republic will be disrupted by an impatient Chinese billionaire…
Kumar’s development business often seems to be the business of the incubators in Nairobi or Kigali, of tech summits in San Francisco or an innovation camp in Geneva. It often does not seem to be the development fit for a post-‘digital innovation will save us’ world, a world of global climate protests that take place literally as I write my review.

‘In the new aid industry, the debate about results, not good intentions, is the debate worth having’ (p.59). Again, this statement is factually correct, but many of Kumar’s observation miss important points about the philosophical and cultural changes that also need to happen. Behind ‘good intentions’ the full baggage of white saviors, missionaries, but also safeguarding, decolonization or roles of local talent is hiding and I would have wished that the book unpacks this for readers-especially those entering the aid industry.

Or perhaps social enterprises and good corporate citizens will come to the rescue of the old aid industry?!?
‘Listening to people’ has been around as a slogan since Robert Chambers discussed to put the last first (and the book is devoid of any development history) and Kumar introduces his version of the future of development:

Simprints is part of a growing movement to professionalize delivery of health, education, agriculture, energy and other services, treating the poor not as nameless and helpless, but as identifiable consumers. (p.77)
And, no, the next paragraph or chapter does not unpack the potential risks and pitfalls of creating ‘identifiable consumers’.
And that is another core weakness of the book: In many ways there was a ‘black’ past that will be replaced by a ‘white’ future and all the ‘shades of grey’ are not very much present.
But development very often meanders across the grey-scale.

Writing a chapter about ‘the “pure” social enterprise’ does not really help either…

The more it produces, the bigger it gets, the more good it does (p.93).
The sound you keep hearing in the background is Jason Hickel fainting at a De-Growth conference ;)!

And then there is ‘big business for good’ featuring vignettes on Patagonia, Nike and TOMS shoes…

This virtuous cycle – activists calling our bad behaviour, consumers pushing up the norms of good corporate behaviour, and good corporate citizens realizing that behaving well is actually better for business-is what will ultimately lead corporations toward a kind of shared-value business (p.109).
This is the point where I am getting quite annoyed with Kumar’s book. Somehow the very same chapter mentions the #AidToo debate which is find just odd.

‘Aid goes retails’, ‘Open source aid’, ‘Systems Thinking’…the next chapters continue with broad ideas about a future positive driven by isolated examples and some interesting vignettes.

Combine these devices (wearable devices and gadgets that plug into a smartphone) with machine learning and data analytics, and the potential for a massive disruption in the way healthcare is provided and paid for is not just possible but likely (p.157).
I guess Bernie Sanders can finally retire as digital solutions will fix healthcare systems across the globe…once again the absence of ethical implications, of business exploitation rather than business for good are downplayed to a point where it simply does no longer reflect serious, evidence-driven debates in the aid industry.

You feel somehow smarter and somewhat motivated, but once you wake up the next morning you realize how complicated, political and less well-intentioned the world really is

In the end, ‘we’ll need to begin to holding billionaires accountable’ (p.180), push government agencies ‘beyond their usual procurement processes’ (p.181) and watch Kenya or the Philippines ‘leapfrog rich countries’ (p.185).
I agree that there are ‘still far too many Americans and Europeans leading international aid agencies’ (p.196) and that expat-driven development is not the future of the industry, but I would have liked to learn more from the data that the million members of DevEx create to gain more insights into the future trends and how the human resources of the industry evolve with some of the challenges Kumar mentions throughout his book.

As I wrote in my introduction, finishing the book felt a bit similar to going home after a dinner talk: You had an entertaining evening, probably in the company of interesting people, and you feel somehow smarter and somewhat motivated, but once you wake up the next morning you realize how complicated, political and less well-intentioned the world really is.

The business of changing the world is not nuanced and critical enough to receive my full endorsement. It reflects the state of a discussion around business and development that claims to ‘disrupt’, but essentially only introduces philanthrocapitalism and digital solutionism into an aid ecosystem that faces much bigger and more complex challenges that any business approach is willing to deliver without questioning the path of how we ended up in a state of climate emergency in the first place… 

, Raj: The Business of Changing the World-How Billionaires, Tech Disrupters, and Social Entrepreneurs Are Transforming the Global Aid Industry. ISBN 978-0-80705-957-9, 241pp, 28.95 USD, Boston: Beacon Press, 2019.


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