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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished.  The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good.  The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be…

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Thus ends Katherine Boo’s extraordinary book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, an account of the lives of people living in the sprawling Annawadi slum outside Mumbai’s bustling airport, in the shadows of the city’s sparkling luxury hotels.  If you care about poverty and what it means to be human, then put this at the top of your to-do list.

At Acumen, moral imagination is central to all we do.  Indeed, we believe the practice of putting one’s self in another’s shoes is one of the most critical characteristics of the kind of moral leadership needed in our interconnected world.  Yet it is too rarely taught or even considered in our schools, our companies, our governments. Katherine Boo, with great humility, determination, patience – and what other word for it is there but love? – does what so few are able to do when considering poor people.  She writes from a place of clear-eyed acceptance, showing not a trace of romanticism, pity, disdain or any of the other lenses through which we keep low-income people at a distance. Through the stories of real people, we gain a privileged view of the complex realities of people living in slums struggling mightily to survive, often against all odds.

The words of Boo and the inhabitants of Annawadi rushed through me like a river, cracking open thoughts of how hard this work is, my anger at those who demand simple solutions and expect easy returns; yet, at the same time, pushing me more urgently to find voice, to speak truth when it hurts.  For all of this, I am grateful to the author for her courage, persistence, and openness.

At Acumen, we stand with the poor.  Boo’s book helped reinforce my understanding that building companies alone is not enough to solve problems of poverty. Rather, we need to find and support entrepreneurs who are thinking about what it takes to build systems that can truly break the back of poverty.

Making markets work for and with the poor requires serious experimentation and risk-taking.  Management talent is hard to find and often must be developed.  Even when early innovations start to succeed, it is not uncommon to see growing businesses sabotaged for threatening the status quo. We’ve seen our companies targeted with smear campaigns, threats, extortion and even bombings of their physical infrastructure.  Dealing with all of this – and doing it legally – is costly, not just in financial terms but in the most human of terms.

For these reasons, we insist that our early stage debt and equity investments be backed with philanthropy, not with investment dollars.  We hold as sacred the ability to take risks based on whether we believe we can help build sustainable companies that benefit the poor, rather than focusing first on investors.  Once the companies make it through the breach, if you will, and prove the business model, we can help them look for the next level of capital.  Standing with the poor also requires training a corps of talented leaders who understand what it takes to build markets where none have existed. And it requires sharing what we’ve learned – both successes and failures.

Standing with the poor ultimately means deciding to do what is right, not just what is easy. Standing with the poor means walking away from unethical leaders, even when their companies are “succeeding.”  It means sometimes spending outsized resources to help turn around companies beleaguered by sabotage or extortion. It means pulling out of deals when co-investors are known to be unethical in their dealings.  And the list goes on.

If the emerging field of impact investing loses its way, it will be because investors insist on financial returns above all else.  Building healthy markets that serve the poor requires a more expansive set of measures: whether individuals have more choice and opportunity, whether they not only can earn income but have the chance to save and invest it, whether they have affordable, quality healthcare, energy, clean water, safe housing, and education.

We see time and again – and this, too comes up in Behind the Beautiful Forevers – that low-income people are willing to pay for the things they value. And in all of this, the world has unprecedented opportunity to build a more inclusive economy.  It simply won’t happen by virtue of traditional investment alone, even if lower-than-market returns are expected. Instead, it will require a mix of capital – including grants and patient capital – an infusion of talent, and the moral courage to take on rotten systems, first and foremost by showing that a different path is achievable.

Katherine Boo is right.  What is amazing about people living in the worst of the world’s slums is not that they can do bad things, but that they can hold onto dreams, live with integrity and give until they can give no more.  They deserve better than they’ve been given. And while the poor are not asking for hand-outs, it is up to all of us to build a world that at the very least gets rid of the seemingly insurmountable challenges in their way.

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Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund.

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