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Book Review: Give a Little

Give a Little: How Your Small Donations Can Transform Our World by Wendy Smith

At first glance, Give a Little, which has a theme of the transformative social effects of cumulative small charitable donations, is not the usual type of book that I review here. And in fact, I came across Give a Little in an unconventional way. Full Disclosure: I know the author slightly and met her a few times previously and for social reasons, received an invitation to the book release party, which required that I pick up the book and read it even though it was not my usual genre.

I was struck by several aspects.

First, the quality level is high ( it reminded me most of a narrowly focused Malcolm Gladwell book). Give a Little was refashioned from a more academic study with plenty of statistical data into a very readable book for a popular audience. The sense of depth carries through.

Secondly, though I’m certain that the author, Wendy Smith, who spent twenty years in the public/NGO sector wasn’t thinking in these terms, the principles behind the humanitarian programs she examines also have the potential to revolutionize foreign aid and economic development policies and breathe life into the “civilian side” of COIN.

Smith’s chapters delve into a variety of the most successful , and at times least well known, programs that have two things in common: first, they are directed at permanently improving the “human capital” or “social capital” of the recipients rather than sustaining a subsistence existence. Secondly, the programs all manage an enormous ROI for every donation due to generating powerful, downstream, “ripple effect” benefits. Cents given today translate into tens or hundreds of dollars of positive outcomes gained and negative costs avoided tomorrow

There are many worthy organizations profiled ( ex. Ounce of Prevention, Bridges to Prosperity etc.) and Smith offers the readers anecdotes that are deeply positive and uplifting narratives of individuals, families and communities transformed by the power of small donations designed to empower the people of the “bottom billion”. Mircolending and philanthropy issues are discussed, as is social investment policies but these subjects are not generally the focus of the readers of this blog.

Of this section of the blogosphere, who should read Give a Little and garner some “Aha!” moments?:

Those interested in COIN and “connecting the Gap“.

Those interested in buildingresilient communities“.

Human Terrain experts.

Those who write about foreign aid, development and humanitarian NGO’s

Advocates of public diplomacy.

Supporters of “decentralized” or “localist” strategies

Reformers who talk of Gov 2.0 and national security

The Social capitalists and unevenly distributed futurists.

9 Responses to “Book Review: Give a Little”

  1. Karaka Says:

    I like how subtle the links are…
    The abstract ethical variation on this topic was the subject of my masters’ degree. I think it has a lot of power for the reason you mention: the principles behind the humanitarian programs she examines also have the potential to revolutionize foreign aid and economic development policies and breathe life into the “civilian side” of COIN.
    Another book with related underlying concepts (if not specifically in terms of subject matter) would be Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson; it also illustrates the significance small-scale change can enact.

  2. YT Says:

    Zen: Sounds a lil’ like somethin’ I read earlier; The Tragedy of the Commons. Or am I off the mark?

  3. J. Scott Says:

    Zen, Ordered the book last night. Am curious on her take on micro-loan programs. The WSJ ran a piece last year (I believe) estolling the virtues of this "little" contribution to the cause of world poverty. If memory serves, this type program was making a real difference in Indonesia and Mexico.

  4. Eddie Says:

    Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I’ll follow up the exceptional "Half the Sky" with this and Mortenson’s newest coming out in December, which is an update of all the progress he’s made with girls’ schools, infrastructure and other vital contributions to Af-Pak’s future since 2001-2002.
    I wish her all the best with sales and hope this is as big an eye-opener for people as "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" and "Half the Sky" have been thus far.

  5. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Sounds like the book covers one of the more productive types of influence operation, the sort the U.S. public sector has been very poor at. The lack of U.S. public sector success in this area is ultimately due to a lack of general cultural consensus among those that staff and support such efforts. A more horizontally and vertically integrated entity like Hizbullah and even the neo-Taliban is capable of integrating kinetic effects with what is in effect armed social work because of a certain unity of cultural world view. There are downsides to total integration like the potential for groupthink but a successive Darwinian weeding by a determined adversary like Israel or the U.S. tends to keep the deadwood pruned.

    The American private sector, on the other hand, in organizations that can achieve group-wide cultural unity and even coherence, traditionally do much better in injecting that which has been distinctively American into foreign cultures than the public sector, the primary downside being that every successful private sector actor represents an element for introducing incoherence into the broader U.S. foreign policy initiative. While private sector actors may see themselves as independent players, many foreign populations view them as part of a single manifestation of U.S. foreign policy. Even the most neutral of public sector actors can be perceived as part of a sinister U.S. conspiracy, a unified and coherent plot against foreign cultures that the real and often dysfunctional U.S. intelligence, diplomatic, and political apparatchiks can only dream of.

    Unfortunately, the only real cure for cultural incoherence and the strategic incoherence it creates is sustained and constant defeat. Incoherent cosmopolitanism is a luxury of the rich and successful. If either riches or success fly the U.S. coop, then the need for enforcing a sort of cultural coherence, though it may only be the narrow culture of revanchist revisionism, will become necessary. It’s good then to have models of success.

  6. T. Greer Says:

    Thanks for the recommendation Zen. I have added it to my ever growing reading list. It seems short though, so hopefully this winter I shall have the chance to get through it.


    It seems to me that most Americans (certainly the intellectual class) view issues like these all the wrong way. The folks over at Chicago Boyz like to point to the Citizen’s reserve as the one aspect of America’s security apparatus that functioned during 9/11. I would suggest that it is one of the few successful parts of our response to 9/11 thus far. Think, Greg Mortenson can build three dozen schools with his own initiative. Surely he did more for both those living near the Duran line and those living in Washington than has any plan yet dreamed up by beltway pundits. We see the same thing here with foreiogn aid — the most successful efforts are those every day citizens embark on.


    The question, then, should not be, "How can we get out government to do more?", but "How can we get our fellow citizens to do more?"

  7. zen Says:

    Hi gents!
    T. Greer – "Ask not what your country can do for you….". Agreed. There is a wealth of potential to be tapped.
    Joseph Fouche’ – Smith covers it well because her motives are authentically oriented toward the kind of charitable enterprises unleashing human capital. The foreign policy aspect is my take on how such principles might be put to use. We might be better off giving the Afghan villagers goats and honeybees than mega-development programs.
    Thanks Eddie!
    YT – Not sure, have not read Tragedy of the Commons.
    Karaka – Give a Little is classed by Amazon in the same category as Three Cups of Tea, incidentally.
    Scott – again, thank you! Smith likes the microloan model because she’s a believer in the capacity of the very poor to live competent and independently prosperous lives if given the tools

  8. Marc Tyrrell Says:

    Hi Zen,

    Nice review and I’ll try to pick up a copy soon.  It certainly fits in with a lot of what I have seen as working and not working.

  9. zen Says:

    Hi Dr. Marc,
    Thanks! There’s quite a few stories in it on how small improvements ( like a couple of rabbits, a goat, a mosquito net etc.) can be snowballed into a social cascade of positive outcomes

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