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Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo:

In which John continues the Nerdfighter Book Club's discussion of Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Are there unambiguous victories? How should we approach our understanding of and relationship with charities domestic and international? I look forward to reading all of your thoughts in comments when I get back.

Some data to start you off:

1. Infant Mortality:

2. Trends in child mortality:

3. EIU Food Security Index (overview):

4. World Bank figures on Global Income Distribution:

5. The Economist on Global Inequality:
Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

I was duly awed by your epic and encyclopedic rant about punishments. And so, even though I still believe in my heart that I do not owe a punishment, I'm going to do one because data does not lie. Well, sometimes it does, but it lies less than your heart. That's what today's video is kind of about, actually.

Okay, Hank, so my favorite character in this summer's Book Club pick, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", is Sunil the twelve-year-old garbage picker who grew up in an orphanage, in fact we're told,

"Though Sunil was not an orphan, he understood that phrases like 'AIDS orphan', and 'when I was the second hand woman to Mother Teresa' helped Sister Paulette, the nun who ran the Handmaids of the Blessed Trinity Children's Home, get money from foreigners."

By the way, little recommendation, when you have a four-year-old child, don't take books to the beach.

So anyway, that's the first mention of charity in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and boy, is it complicated. Sunil is a non-orphan in an orphanage, Sister Paulette lies to raise money, and we later read that when the orphanage collects clothes for the kids and then sells those clothes to pay for other stuff.

But while Sunil isn't an orphan, he does need the orphanage. Plus, he learns to read while he's there. And that's the kind of non-straightforward story about charities, both domestic and international, that we rarely hear, especially from charities themselves.

Right, because they have to raise money, and telling people, 
"Ah, we think this is going to go well, it isn't going to be perfect, but we suspect it will be a net-positive, although there's no way to know", that's a terrible fundraising strategy. 

But that's closer to the reality that we see in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, like the charity-administered school in Annawadi is taught by a teenager and definitely sub-standard. And toward the end of the book we learn that many charity-administered schools are outright frauds. When a new school opened in the Pink Temple by the sewage lake, many children gravitated to it. But it closed as soon as the leader of the non-profit had taken enough pictures of children studying to secure government funds.

And then there are, like, collaborations between government and charity, which are also sometimes problematic. Like, you'll remember that Annawadi's political representative who is super corrupt keeps getting public amenities, care of the charity World Vision. You know, like public toilets and gutters etcetera, and that's all good stuff, but it's timed to the elections so that he can keep his power.

And so you could see it as these projects like further institutionalizing the corrupt power system, right. But then again, good toilets are really important for public health. It's complicated.

Hank, this is all particularly interesting to me right now because, as you watch this, I am in East Africa learning about some of the work that people there are doing with the help of the Gates Foundation.

Now, the situation in East Africa is vastly different from the situation in Annawadi, but around the world, including in our own neighborhoods, we need to look at what charities do and how well they do it.

Hank, you don't want to be giving to charity simply because it makes you feel good or because it lessens some guilt that you have. We want to actually decrease World Suck. I apologize for splitting that infinitive but I felt that it was necessary.

When we talk about health and poverty, we are talking about incredibly complicated problems and yes, money can be misallocated, and it can be used to bolster corrupt regimes, but we have lots of data -- links in the doobly-doo -- showing that in the last twenty years, when people have access to the right resources and tools, they can transform the health and economic opportunities in their communities.

Rising income, better food security, higher literacy rates, lower infant mortality -- those aren't anecdotes and they are real progress.

Hank, one of the reasons I continue to reread "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is that it doesn't contain any unambiguous victories. Not for the characters, certainly, but also not for foreign aid or government spending or microfinance or charity. Non-profit spending doesn't always work, partly because not all non-profits are equally effective and partly because no one succeeds all of the time.

I think when trying to figure out what does work, data is probably ultimately a better guide than anecdote. But then again, data can also be manipulated. Hank, we are either going to embrace complexity or we're going to be lying to ourselves. That's what I took away from "Behind the Beautiful Forevers".
I look forward to reading your thoughts in comments when I return.

Hank, I hope to learn a lot this week, and I hope to listen a lot, but if I come home with straightforward answers and simple solutions, I am probably doing it wrong.

Okay Hank, although I will be very jet-lagged, I will see you on Friday.