A Path Appears Book Review

This my book review of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s ”A Path Appears”. (Also available on scribd here). In 2015, the review won the Sciences Po - Books prize, a book review competition organized by my University and the magazine Books. It was published in French translation in the June 2015 edition of Books, of which I’ve scanned the relevant pages.

In May 2013 TIME magazine’s cover called millennials –those born between 1980 and 2000– the “Me Me Me Generation”. It featured a young woman taking a selfie, the emblematic act of a generation of smartphone-toting, selfish narcissists. Yet statistics such as those by the Pew Research Center describe an empathetic age group that votes less often, but is more likely to do volunteer work than their parents were. Most likely, Millennials are simply doing things differently, both shaping and reacting to the ways altruism and citizenship are being reinvented. That, at least, is the hopeful message captured in the title of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s new book A Path Appears. A generation ago, they say, “’giving back’ was what we did in December, hunched over a checkbook and relying on guesswork. In recent years, advances in neuroscience and economics –and a flowering of carefully monitored experiments- have given us much greater insight into what works to create opportunity worldwide, and much greater prospects for personal satisfaction from giving”. The sunlit path towards creating a better lives for others, they say, appears before us clearer than ever. And they want you to take it: the book is sold as a “galvanizing narrative about making a difference here and abroad—a road map to becoming the most effective global citizens we can be.”

The first chapter of the book is representative of its approach – and of its paradoxes. We meet Rachel Beckwith, an American girl who decided to celebrate her ninth birthday by asking friends and relatives to donate to charity:water, an organization that drills wells in impoverished villages around the world and lets people set up their own fundraisers online. Rachel’s target sum was not reached. Six weeks later, Rachel tragically died in a highway accident, but the story of her generosity rippled through social media, and her page eventually raised over a million dollars. Cut to Lester Strong - who left his job as a news executive to run Experience Corps, an organization bringing in older Americans to tutor students in public schools across the country. Next we learn about Dr. Gary Slutkin, whose Cure Violence program combats urban violence in the United States by applying methods of epidemiology. After these uplifting stories, the second half of the chapter focuses on numbers and scientific studies designed to show how much more we know about creating opportunity; and how much more efficiently, therefore, we who live in privilege can employ our wealth and skills for causes larger than ourselves. Esther Duflo, an MIT economist, has pioneered the use of randomized controlled trials, which apply the rigorous methods of pharmaceutic drug testing to policies designed to help the world’s poorest people. She found that for 50 cents a year, you can deworm a child in Kenya, increasing their school attendance and cognitive development. Once an adult, that child will earn 20% more compared to those in a control group. So although two thirds of Americans donate an average of $1000 to charity each year, they rarely give money away as intelligently as they make it. As Esther Duflo says, “Worms have a little bit of a problem grabbing the headlines. They are not beautiful and don't kill anybody”.

This book, like its first chapter, constantly meshes hard evidence with inspiring anecdotes. As regular New York Times columnists and Pulitzer prize winners, the authors have clearly understood that if they want to produce a compelling book they must combine storytelling with rational argument. In fact, as they keep piling up story after story of activists saving the world, you may begin to see the strings. But the real challenge of this 656-page tome is to coherently bridge the gap between the rational and the emotional, the Esther Duflos and the Rachel Beckwiths. After all, these motivations for altruism are quite different, and they may point to quite irreconcilable courses of action. Can Kristof and WuDunn successfully appeal to both the calculating utilitarian and the impulsive altruist?

The book is structured into three parts, the first of which collects stories and evidence about programs that work best in providing opportunity. Microfinance institutions have been all the rage in recent decades. They lend small amounts to developing-country entrepreneurs who lack access to traditional banks, without requiring any collateral. The idea is that a poor Kenyan farmer has exceptionally high-return investment opportunities, such as doubling his crop yield by using fertilizer; but is never able to get started because he does not have enough money to buy that first unit of fertilizer. When Esther Duflo and her team conducted a randomized trial of microlending in Hyderabad, they found that 7 percent of those who had received a loan had successfully started a small business, compared to 5 percent in the control group. The economists called themselves “quite pleased with these results” because they demonstrated that the main goal of microfinance had been achieved. But nearly everyone else in the development community felt a huge letdown. Having believed microfinance to be a silver bullet, they found those numbers depressing. In fact, some microfinance institutions reacted by trying to cast doubt on the study. In politics as in development aid, then, great narratives are not always compatible with the numbers. Though not a magical solution, supporting a microfinance institution is still an efficient donation. The average loan repayment rate is over 90%, which allows your donation to be reinvested many times into the local economy.

As it turns out, for governments in the rich world, creating opportunity is also a great investment. A black man in America is more likely to spend time in prison than college. If that statistic can be turned around, the taxpayer benefits, too. In one of the best chapters of the book, entitled “The land of opportunity – if you catch them early”, the authors argue that the best way to make the lottery of birth less unfair is to intervene in the earliest stage of life. Actually, it’s better to start before that: during pregnancy, the fetal brain is being shaped by the uterine environment in ways that will affect the child for the rest of his or her life. A simple program to encourage women to stop smoking during pregnancy costs about $30 per woman counselled. Randomized trials have shown that each of these $30 save about $800 in averted neonatal costs. After birth, returns to society quickly decrease, but it’s still not too late: pre-kindergarten nursing visits for low-income unmarried mothers produce $5.7 in state and federal government savings for each dollar invested. James Zimmermann, CEO of Macy’s and an advocate for this kind of intervention, puts it succinctly: “investing in early childhood achieves the best return on investment for our country. Currently more than 90% of our education dollars are spent after age five, yet 85% of a child’s core brain structure is developed before age five.” There are three words in that quote you may have glossed over: for our country. Yet they represent one of the main paradoxes of this book. The authors keep talking about effective giving, but they miss the biggest effectiveness gap of all: between poor and rich countries. If you read this book trying to decide how best to make a difference, forget about nurse visits: 50-cent-a-year deworming in Africa beats anything you can do in the rich world. The authors repeatedly show they are aware of this discrepancy, yet they brazenly ignore its implications. It may feel good to say that poverty at home and abroad are “too important to be pitted against each other”, but upon reflection that turns out to be as fallacious as claiming that college scholarships and nurse visitation programs cannot be compared. If this book bridges the gap between rational analysis and gut feeling, it is only at a huge cost in consistency. As a result, A Path Appears lacks the moral force of Peter Singer’s resolutely utilitarian manifesto for helping the global poor, The Life You Can Save.

In part two, the authors discuss not on-the-ground programs, but rather how the art of helping itself has been transformed by new approaches. Here, they wade into more controversial terrain, but that may be where their insights will most surprise you. As an example of the “social business” model that is blurring the lines between for-profit and non-profit, they hold up an enterprise by Danone in producing a Yogurt containing micronutrients to fill nutritional deficits of children in Bangladesh. The yogurt is sourced locally, providing business and employment opportunities. This venture is often criticized as a public-relations ploy and, to some, smacks of cultural imperialism (Bangladeshis had never heard of Yogurt before Danone started advertising). The authors don’t dwell on these considerations; instead they make the larger point that social businesses, which operate on a “double bottom line” model combining profits and social impact, have helped bring the efficiency and scalability of business to charitable causes.

One of the most interesting characters of this book is Dan Pallotta, an ambitious consultant who in 1994 launched Pallotta TeamWorks, a company which organized bike rides and other events to raise money for AIDS and breast cancer prevention. Pallotta knew that the reason his events were successful was that they were fun, cool, and well-organized. He poured money into marketing and logistics, saying “We advertised our events the way Apple advertises iPads.” He also paid himself $394 000 in 2001. All this meant that only about 60% of the money raised went to the charities.  Increasingly criticized for this high overhead figure and his somewhat glitzy approach to charity, Pallotta was dropped by his sponsor in 2002. That sponsor tried to run the events themselves, keeping costs down. But though overhead was lower, the amounts raised for charities dropped 70% in one year, from $6 million under Pallota’s management to only $1.6 million. People started to realize that what had been called overhead was actually essential to the fundraising effort. In an inspiring TED talk, Pallotta argues that “the way we think about charity is dead wrong”, and urges donors to ignore the “depressing label of overhead” and instead focus on what charities are getting done per dollar. Meanwhile, established charities have quickly realized that they can exploit our emotional responses through advertising: in 2002, UNICEF  experimented with putting a nickel in its mailings, visible through a glassine window on the envelope. This triggered people’s reciprocity instinct, and the response rate doubled. Sounds like manipulation? In the for-profit world, it’s called marketing. If we think it’s okay for a multinational to use those tactics to sell hamburgers, why do we frown upon charities doing it to ‘sell’ education for Ethiopian girls?

The last third of the book is dedicated to showing that far from being a Gandhi-style sacrifice, altruism can be a source of great fulfillment. The MRI scan, the grail of modern brain science, has been used in countless experiments to show that giving money to charities activates the same pleasure centers of the brain as eating fine food or having sex. In fact, things we think will make us happy, like winning the lottery, have almost no long-term impact; but helping others has been shown to increase long-term life satisfaction and health. While the studies cited are rather solid, this optimism hides the many ways in which our altruistic instincts actually work against us. The American charity Smile Train, which offers cleft palate surgeries to children in the developing world, uses the photo of a Russian boy in their mailings: randomized trials showed that the mostly white donor base responded best when shown a picture of someone with the same skin color. Spontaneously, we help those who resemble us. We also like identifiable victims: people are actually more willing to donate $300 000 to save one child than the same amount to save eight children. Perhaps we should not rely all too much on our instincts. Very often, actions that make you feel good crowd out actions that do the most good.

A Path Appears functions nicely as an inspiring catalogue of all the ways you can help others. It provides a treasure trove of studies and anecdotes that will delight anyone interested in altruism; its twenty chapters are actually so exhaustive that they can become exhausting. If you have a friend who might like to do some volunteer work, but doesn’t know where to start, buy her the book. If you care more about the impact than the narrative, however, I have a provocative suggestion for you. We’ve already seen how much good money can do, when given to the best causes. If you really want to make a difference, why not try something none of the people in this book have done: quit your job, but don’t go work for a charity. Instead, go to Wall Street, earn as much money as you can, then give it to the most effective charities. Join Goldman Sachs. Save the world.


Click here for scan of French translation

Written on July 1, 2015