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Book Review: A Path Appears

By (September 6, 2014) No Comment

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunitya path appears cover

by Nicholas D. Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn

Knopf, 2014

“There’s a good deal of cynicism about charities, some of it deserved,” Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn write at the outset of their new book, A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity, “but the pitfalls needn’t deter anyone from seeking to have a substantial impact on other people’s lives.” And the bulk of the book – the first from these authors since their phenomenally successful Half the Sky in 2009 – follows up on this egalitarian approach, giving dozens of lovingly-described examples of corporations, smaller organizations, and individual people trying to make a difference in the lives of the world’s poor and disadvantaged.

They tell stories of grassroots projects to increase educational opportunities, both in remote corners of the world and in urban America. They profile people who’ve dedicated huge amounts of time and energy to causes like better school lunches, cleaner drinking water, more compassionate daycare programs, and many other worthy endeavors, and they mean these examples to be pragmatically illuminating, real-world case-studies of ‘boots on the ground’ charity work. “Talk about helping others can easily sink into soggy sentimentality, even sanctimony,” they warn.

This book ignores that warning at every turn, unfortunately. The slight tendency in Half the Sky toward schmaltz here slips almost entirely out of our authors’ control; it’s not twenty pages before the march of these profiles takes on a cast of saints’ lives that’s never shaken off. It gets wearying, especially once sheer repetition makes its template clear. Virtually all of the vignettes presented do the same quick turn through the first four songs of Annie:

As a young girl, Britny Hurley aspired to become a pediatrician, and in a middle-class home she probably would have achieved that dream. Although she speaks in a strong Appalachian accent that is sometimes difficult to understand, her mind is razor sharp. But life was stacked against her, partly because she grew up in a family plagued by addictions in Breathitt County, Kentucky, a land of jutting hills and verdant hollows. The county had a rough past (it was called “Bloody Breathitt” because of its penchant for feuds), and it is struggling today.

The sentimentality gets thigh-deep, but it could be overlooked if the vignettes themselves weren’t gradually more and more disturbing. There’s a leaden imperialism clomping around right backstage from all these gritty teenagers and idealistic college students, and the implications raised form a kind of mocking chorus to the book’s main ideas, constantly forcing our authors to skirt, tidy, or avoid the strong whiff of bullying hobby-helping. Take for example Grameen Danone Foods Ltd., a subsidiary of the multi-national Danone yogurt empire. In 2005 Danone and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh teamed up to put a new yogurt production plant in one of the country’s poorest and most remote areas, up north in the region of Bogra. Grameen Danone wanted to infuse the yogurt with “micro nutrients” in order to combat the malnourishment rampant among the country’s poor, and our authors are counting on the brightness of that goal dispelling any shadows of doubt (or perhaps, more troublingly, they see no shadows).

But there are plenty of doubts. Bangladeshis had never heard of yogurt (and like all right-thinking people considered the idea of eating it revolting), for starters. And the Bogra region had no reliable supply of electricity. And Bangladeshi cows don’t produce enough milk to support a large industrialized yogurt plant. And it turns out yogurt that’s been infused with “micro nutrients” tastes like ball bearings, which is hardly inviting to all those malnourished kids. So a big electrical power plant needed to be constructed, and the native cows needed to be cross-bred with imported foreign cattle, and education seminars needed to be conducted to acclimate all the adults to the whole idea of yogurt, and sugar and artificial sweeteners had to be added to the yogurt in order to make it palatable (and, as our authors choose not to stress, the whole brutal, ungainly mess would, thanks to the location, happen well outside the close observation of any governmental scrutiny). The company has gone on to build a great many more and bigger yogurt plants throughout the country, and their board eschews all but the smallest profits, and perhaps there’s data indicating healthier children, and all that looks just as wonderful as anything does behind a steamroller rather than in front of it. Kristof and WuDunn almost acknowledge at least a bit of a down side to any of this, but they immediately place it in a context that they put forward more and more strongly as their book progresses:

Danone’s experiment with making yogurt in Bangladesh is a prime example of the growing interest among even giant multinational companies in social responsibility. There are reasons for skepticism, because some of this is about public relations, but on the whole we welcome this push. When for-profit companies tackle social problems they can have a huge impact.

Or look at another example from the many our authors provide, the case of Better World Books, a for-profit bookselling business set up by Kreece Fuchs and his partner Xavier Helgesen in 2002. Better World Books has a company name virtually guaranteed to attract the attention of A Path Appears; Kristof and WuDunn are enamored especially of the company’s good deeds: “on average,” they tell us, “Better World Books donates 5 to 7 percent of revenues [their italics], even if it has no profits, to libraries or literacy programs.” Which sounds admirable, but then two paragraphs later we learn the current numbers:

Better World Books now processes 120,000 books a day, 40 million a year. It broke the $50 million barrier in revenues in 2013 and is still growing by double digits each year, including 11 percent in 2013. It has donated more than $15 million so far to more than 100 literacy programs.

Since press time, that barrier has been further broken to the tune of $65 million in those italicized annual revenues, with $15 million donated to literacy programs – over the whole twelve years. In other words, a good deal less than “5 to 7 percent” of revenues, with Kreece, Helgesen, et al. happily enjoying the millionaire lifestyle in the meantime. The literacy programs that benefit from the company’s donations no doubt do worthy work – but their reality is importantly different from the one Kristof and WuDunn describe and celebrate: they’re not a mission, they’re a negligent line-item deduction.

A Path Appears never abides such thought. Instead, our authors become more and more open in a view of human nature that’s, to put it mildly, puzzlingly unrecognizable. “Most publicly traded companies,” they write, “start out focused on growth and then, after creating a cushion of profits, begin to give back and adopt corporate social responsibility programs.” As anyone who’s ever read a single news story in any newspaper in the world at any point in the last six years could instantly attest, this offhand assertion that companies just naturally evolve compassion is delusional – and that delusion eventually drowns out the rest of the book. There’s a very simple narrative being shaped by all these various examples of bright shining goodwill, a narrative in which we’re all every day in every way getting better and better:

The challenge is to nurture a culture of altruism and empathy, seeking to imbue an instinct for social engagement. That is to say, it’s not you or me, but we. That is already beginning to happen, and the progress in expanding empathy over the past 250 years is stunning. The first large social movement on behalf of others – rather than demanding more for oneself – was the British antislavery movement that began in the 1780s, and the first international relief effort in response to global poverty came during the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.

(This rapid-step enlightenment is belied by, among other things, ten centuries of quietly active Catholic charities, but we’ll let that pass)

Their main point is that every single one of their readers can be a part of this great march forward into the light of not you or me, but we, but our authors know which side their TED talks are buttered on, and when they finally get around to enunciating it clearly, what they’re talking about is helicopter humanism. You can give, and you can care, and you can get involved, yes, but you need not take any vows of poverty or service like those poor ignored Catholic charitable orders; in fact, you don’t really need to be inconvenienced at all:

Of course, there are wonderful people out there who scrimp by in their daily lives and donate half their incomes, and they belong in a hall of heroes … but not everyone can take such steps. Society has many needs, and as we’ve shown, the humanitarian world itself benefits from people with diverse skill sets built up over a career in, say, accounting, finance, engineering, or marketing, who can then volunteer occasionally with a nonprofit. We can splurge on a dinner or play without chastising ourselves with the thought that the money could have been better spent on schistosomiasis. Our struggles to do the right thing are a part of life but not the whole of it. A life with meaning isn’t a destination but a journey.

What Kristof and WuDunn don’t seem to realize, don’t let themselves realize, is that if their readers’ quest to imbue their lives with meaning is a journey, then all those poor and disadvantaged are tourist attractions (and CV items) rather than people. Despite its aspirations to be the exact opposite, A Path Appears is in fact a long, highly detailed absolution for not having the courage of your convictions. The book comes with astonishing blurbs of praise, including from two US presidents, Carter and Clinton. Hollywood is also represented, in the form of U2 singer Bono and actress Angelina Jolie, all praising Kristof and WuDunn for the “inspiring” stories they tell. There’s also a blurb from Bill Gates, whose personal net worth is roughly three and a quarter trillion dollars (he could, with no harm to his revenues, give $5000 to every single human being on Earth, which might do quite a bit to help the disadvantaged). When A Path Appears advocates philanthropy, it’s more often than not advocating a kind of preening self-satisfaction, a bragging-contest at book clubs. Innovation and altruism are every bit as uplifting and life-changing as Kristof and WuDunn portray them in this book – but they can be far harder and far more complex than the sunny $5-at-a-time parables assembled here. Readers can take the sunny stuff for all the wonderful uplift it imparts – this is clearly our authors’ main intention. But for the simple metric known to the compassionate for three thousand years – not just that compassion is a kind of work but also that charity involves sacrifice – they’ll have to look elsewhere. A Path Appears isn’t Half the Sky, but it’s very much half the story.