Book Review: The Business of Changing the World, by Raj Kumar

June 18, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

I found reading The Business of Changing the World rather disturbing – a bit like being taken hostage by a cult and submitted to polite but persistent brainwashing for several days (I’m a slow reader). The cult in question is what Anand Giridharadas calls ‘MarketWorld’ – an effusive, evangelical belief in the power of markets, data and new tech to solve almost any problem. It didn’t help that I read the two books back to back.

First the thesis. Kumar contrasts Old Aid and New Aid, and this book is a hymn to the New:

‘The new aid industry has the kind of ambitions we usually associate with Silicon Valley disrupters like Uber, Facebook and Tesla. A confluence of related technology trends – increased internet connectivity, biometric identification, and mobile banking – is making it possible to reach the world’s poor directly, and get real-time results about what’s working and what isn’t. Aid recipients are adopting the expectations of customers while donors expect results, not just feel-good information about how much money was spent on a school or how much medicine was distributed.

Old Aid said: give things away for free. New Aid says: where it makes sense, give things away for free but do so in a targeted manner. Limit the time duration. Work to get local economies going on their own and to get people back to work.

Old Aid said: come in from outside with the Big Idea. New aid says: ask local people what’s holding them back. Listen to them. Then provide support for their own ideas.

Old Aid said: development is a project with a budget and a timeline. New aid says: development is a process. Build a business model that is self-sustaining, long-term and can adapt based on shifting circumstances.

Old aid said: help the victim. New aid says: support the most powerful force for changing a person’s life – him- or herself.’

He then unpacks New Aid with chapters on billionaire philanthropists, results-based aid, poor people as customers, social enterprise, direct funding (aka disintermediation), open source aid, embracing complexity and more. Each chapter follows a roughly similar format: Sweeping assertion → inspiring, gee whizz examples from start-ups or Old Aid reformers → cursory summary of counter-arguments, which can usually be solved with better data and more transparency → concluding rallying cry for New Aid.

I actually agree with a lot of the critiques of Old Aid, so what’s my problem with the book? Apart from the level of gush about billionaires, which is a bit distasteful (I’m with Giridharadas on that one), it’s the uniformity of the remedies: MarketWorld insists that there are win-wins and market solutions for everything (‘the problems of global development are investment problems that can be financed’; ‘the old worldview sees poverty as an immovable object; the new one, in which poor people are consumers, sees poverty as another business issue to be overcome’).

Kumar is obviously smart, knowledgeable (he set up and still runs the Devex media platform) and has lots of good instincts, but those instincts seem to get distorted through the MarketWorld lens. People are little more than isolated rational units that respond to information and immediate need. Everyone is wonderful, but held back by a lack of money, knowledge or suitable apps. Politicians are tangential, power invisible and largely irrelevant, struggle and conflict unnecessary. Win wins are everywhere – no-one needs to lose out. People are rational, numerate and have both time and desire to pore for hours over the data in search of an identifiable and singular truth over ‘what works’.

Kumar’s account of the ‘most important global health success story of the past two decades’ – the rapid expansion of AIDs treatment, especially in Africa, illustrates the problem. He puts it all down to two US presidents (Bush and Clinton) and their respective AIDS initiatives. Really? No mention of the phenomenal global campaign, led by South African organizations like the Treatment Action Campaign?

The paeans to results-based aid and all the really smart New Aid innovations (Development Impact Bonds, Cash Transfers, mobile banking, social enterprises, impact investors) focus on how great they are in theory (often true), but ignores how they are working out in practice (or all too often, failing to). Uncritical Neophilism rampant.

Part of me is envious of the breezy self-confidence, the fascination with the new. That every problem can be solved if people are just smart about it. It’s intoxicating and questioning it makes me feel like an old bah-humbug stick-in-the-mud. But I just don’t believe it (Oh Lord, now I sound like Victor Meldrew).

So is it the book or me? Am I just a sullen old Leftie who can’t acknowledge that MarketWorld has triumphed – the new end of history? If anyone fancies reading both books and telling me, I would love to hear from you….

And here’s Raj Kumar summarizing his argument in two minutes.

June 18, 2019
Duncan Green