The Carnegie Way

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on September 4, 2007

(by Marvin Olasky, – As Paul Collier points out, aid can be distributed intelligently or foolishly. A further dimension of aid involves helping the poor to help themselves by developing and selling inexpensive products with names like “MoneyMaker” – and therein lies a tale.

Let’s begin it with Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), who grew up poor in Scotland, became rich in America, and then gave away most of his money, the equivalent today of $5 billion. He paid for the construction of over 2,500 public libraries. He created institutions like Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He believed that giving the poor opportunities to gain education and build businesses would contribute to world peace.

After J.P. Morgan in 1901 bought Carnegie’s company and made it the centerpiece of a massive new concern, U.S. Steel, Carnegie retired to a home on New York’s swank Fifth Avenue. That building now houses the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. It now has three floors exhibiting elegant gadgets like iPods, robots, sleek chairs, and stairway lights tracking movement. It also has, in a side yard until Sept. 23, a “Design for the Other 90%” exhibit of products for the poor in developing countries.

Among the products: the Super MoneyMaker Pump, a user-powered treadle pump – it operates like a gym stair-stepper – that allows a farmer, or his children, to irrigate two acres in eight hours. Another product is the MoneyMaker Block Press, which allows half a dozen workers to produce each day 600 strong and durable building blocks made from soil mixed with a small percentage of cement.

Carnegie would have liked that block press, because he always looked for ways to do simple tasks more efficiently. He wouldn’t have been fooled by the pretty sight of women and girls, particularly in Africa, walking along the road balancing jugs of water on their heads. (When they do that mile after mile, day after day, some end up crippled.) He would have admired the display of a simple but elegant Q Drum, a big, lime-green plastic donut, wide as a truck tire but hollow, with a screw-in cap on one side: Even a child can put a rope through the Q Drum’s hole and roll 20 gallons of water to a village.

Carnegie would have liked having his yard display ingeniously simple solutions to formerly intractable problems. For example, contaminated drinking water often spreads waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and dysentery. Solution: the LifeStraw, a 10-inch-long plastic tube with an interior carbon filter that, when water is sucked through it, removes dangerous particulates. Second solution: Aquastar Plus, which exposes water put into a bottle to ultraviolet light, which makes pathogens non-infective.

Carnegie in his time or ours could see that ordinary bicycles are not made to carry hundreds of pounds to market. Here’s the solution: the Big Boda load-carrying bicycle, which has a big steel cargo support and an extended wheel base that lowers the center of gravity. Or, how about the problem of food spoilage in hot climates due to lack of cool food storage areas? Solution: a pot-in-pot cooler made up of two nested earthenware pots, with sand and water in between. The evaporating water draws heat from the inner pot and can keep produce such as tomatoes cool for up to 20 days, so that farmers have more time to sell their crops.

The exhibit in Carnegie’s yard is provocative, but another part of Carnegie’s life rubs some the wrong way: He believed in making a lot of money and giving most of it away, but he also spent a lot. The New York house that is now the Cooper-Hewitt museum had 64 rooms. Its sub-basement had rail tracks for cars filled with coal to feed a row of furnaces. Carnegie burned up to a ton of coal on winter days to keep his house warm. His wine cellar had over 1,500 expensive bottles, and he ordered 50-gallon casks of Dewars when he threw a party.

That history, along with some current practices of others among the rich, fuels rage. One radical weblog, Art for a Change, excoriated the Cooper-Hewitt exhibit: “‘Design for the Other 90%’ seems more an insult than a solution. Even the name stinks of privilege and imperial arrogance. ‘We,’ the 10%, can go on enjoying our luxury chrome plated Hummers and other accoutrements of a thoroughly unsustainable lifestyle, and we can do so guilt-free as we’ve devised consumer goods for the other 90% of the world’s population.”

Art for a Change was not impressed by the cleverness of the life-saving objects at the exhibit: “No amount of spiffily-designed water purifiers and latrine kits sold to the impoverished will end poverty—only a fair distribution of wealth and resources can do that.” Ah, there’s the rub: What is fair? Equality of result? Equality of opportunity? The opportunity immigrants to America have had to work hard so their children have greater opportunity?

Martin J. Fisher, co-founder of KickStart International, creator of those human-powered water pumps that make possible longer growing seasons and higher incomes for small farmers in poor countries, argues that “what poor people need most is a way to make money.” He happily tells reporters of customers who skipped meals for weeks to save the money to buy a treadle pump. The ambitious farmers multiplied their investment of $30 to $90 10-fold in one year by growing grain in the dry season, when it fetches three times the normal price.

And yet, the idea that anyone should skip a meal upsets the stomachs of many. Why should anyone have to work something like a stair-climber for hours to pump water when we have motorized pumps? But, in Fisher’s words, affluent people “buy time-saving and labor-saving devices, and many of those aren’t that relevant for the poor. They have a fair lot of time and labor. What they don’t have is very much money.” By giving people the opportunity to make money, KickStart International says it has helped 230,000 people escape poverty.

Shouldn’t we give pumps to the poor? Why make them skip meals?

KickStart insists on selling its pumps because “no giveaway program can be sustainable. By selling our pumps, we create a sustainable supply chain.” Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, tells reporters, “When you give things away, you lack discipline in how you design them because you don’t have to get feedback from the customer.”

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit emphasizes small: Don’t construct hydroelectric dams, construct cheap shelter that people can buy to protect themselves from the elements. The exhibit embraces using human power rather than machines and gasoline because use of machinery requires continued infusions of Western cash. The goal is for local economies to function independently: People power can crank radios, pump water, and drive bicycles.

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit displays ingenuity and also forces us to confront our own charitable notions. Do we emphasize giving to all of the poor rather than helping those who are able-bodied to glean their sustenance? Do we ignore sustainability and create long-term dependence?

The Bible strongly emphasizes help to the helpless—most obviously, widows and orphans—but expects widows to be busy with good deeds and not busybodies. The Bible offers hope to the disabled and demands work from the able: In the apostle Paul’s punchy words to the Thessalonians, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit shows simple yet elegant tools; a major goal now should be to make sure that eager hands have access to them.

Copyright ©2007 WORLD Magazine, September 1, 2007 issue.  Reprinted here September 4th with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at