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A PATH A PPE A R S

BOOK REVIEW

THOMAS SITTLER

In May 2013 TIME magazines 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 WuDunns 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 abroada 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. Rachels 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 worlds 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, its 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 its 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 Macys 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 childs 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 Singers 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 publicrelations ploy and, to some, smacks of cultural imperialism (Bangladeshis had never heard of Yogurt
before Danone started advertising). The authors dont 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 Pallotas 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 peoples reciprocity instinct,
and the response rate doubled. Sounds like manipulation? In the for-profit world, its called marketing. If
we think its 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 doesnt 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. Weve 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 dont 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.
Thomas Sittler