Francisco Noguera

Book Review: In the River They Swim

Where does this title come from? Why rivers and swimming? I wondered about these questions as I opened a copy of “In the River They Swim: Essays from Around the World on Enterprise Solutions to Poverty”, a new book edited by Michael Fairbanks, Malik Fal, Marcela Escobari-Rose and Elizabeth Hooper.

The answer to my question came pretty soon, as Fairbanks talks a bit of his title choice in the first paragraph of the introduction. Paraphrasing, there are many ways to know a river according to the teachings of a Sufi Master. You can know it by studying its maps and documents written about its currents, depth, source, etc. If you’re drawn by it you can also choose to travel, see it and study it from a distance close enough so you can see it every now and eventually get your foot in it to feel how cold or warm it is. Until you ultimately decide to take off your clothes and dive into it, only then realizing its true character, its effects on you and whether you are strong enough to swim its length.

The essays in this book are written by remarkable people that have dived into the waters of international development, and whose initiatives and risks taken have been instrumental as the world shifts its thinking about entrepreneurs and the private sector and sees them as main characters in the pursue of poverty reduction and sustainable development. These include heads of state like President Kagame of Rwanda, to multilateral leaders like IADB’s President Moreno and practitioners from the enterprise perspective like Robert Henning, among many others.

I would be overlooking a crucial part of this work without adding a few words about Mr. Fairbanks, before going into a bit more detail of the book’s content. I met Michael back in January while attending a lecture he delivered at the Americal Enterprise Institute. I recall being very impressed by his candid and entertaining speaking style, as well as with his track record and accomplishments. He is a cofounder at both the OTF group (from where he advices heads of state of 20 nations) and the SEVEN Fund, where though grants and special competitions he’s walking the talk of promoting entrepreneurship and innovation by encouraging people to learn by failing, and doing so “fast, frequently and, most importantly, originally“.

Do not expect, however, a set of stories about specific entrepreneurs and organizations serving low income communities. Rather, expect thought-provoking and honest reflections of these leaders as they reconstruct the path they have followed to conceive enterprise as a means to enhance human dignity, as well as their successes, failures and frustrations in doing so. Far from a “how-to” guide to development through enterprise, In the River They Swim offers a collection of anwers to”why” development through enterprise.

While the structure of this collection seems unclear at times, the ideas presented are powerful and challenging, and require slow and careful reading. Halfway through the book, I’ve already found essays worth reading several times, like those of Andreas Widmer, one of the cofounders of the SEVEN Fund whose background before that includes a successful career in venture capital building multimillion dollar companies as well as serving in the Swiss Guard protecting Pope John Paul II and studies in theology. How much more interesting does it get? The ideas of Widmer have resonated strongly with many of my own thoughts and questions about this “space” and my personal motivations for working in it. Let me mention a couple.

First, how can we shield our work from becoming a mere trend? What are the moral grounds that we need to build to make this work lasting, meaningful and its impacts sustainable? I for one dread the prospect of people discussing a decade from now and remembering the recent enthusiasm for BoP/ social enterprise as an idea that captured the imagination of many only to fade away some time after, driven by the disillusion and disappointment of those working in it, and its emptiness at heart. It is sometimes difficult to articulate or find opportunities to write about these ideas, and so reading Widmer has been timely and reassuring. I appreciated his reference to the visionary works of Pope John Paul II and the social doctrine of the catholic church, which I had read a few months back and was unexpectedly dusted off in my mind by Widmer’s essays.

“For economic development, it is not enough simply to help people create great business strategies that enable them to become competitive in the world’s market. The other half of the equation depends on whether a people’s moral culture can implement capitalism in a way that puts human capital at its core. (…) Financial gain itself does not provide answers to the questions it raises: Which means are acceptable to generate financial profits? How does human dignity fit into the pursuit of economic prosperity? …”

Just as important as avoiding the risks of superficiality turning our work into a trend are the different traps that the development community is constantly exposed to, one of them being that of “codependency” or (paraphrasing) “the extreme case in which development aid becomes a business, an entire industry feeding upon itself … Economic development aid cannot be a perpetual state.”

I encourage NextBillion readers to pick up a copy of this important book and read it as a reminder of the core values that lie on the grounds of the development through enterprise movement. To persevere in it and to make it truly lasting, we need frequent and strong reminders of why we do what we do. Most importantly, we need such ideas to make self assessments and continue the path towards the trampoline from which we’ll dive into the river.