Tag Archives: reviews

Book Review: The Great Surge: The Ascent of the Developing World — Steven Radelet

It’s both pleasant and unusual to find a book that is at its core optimistic:

I believe that during the next twenty years, the great surge of development progress can continue. If it does, 700 million more people will be lifted out of extreme poverty, incomes in developing countries will more than double again, childhood death will continue to decline, hundreds of millions of children will get the education they deserve, and basic rights and democratic freedoms will spread further around the world.

In The Great Surge Radelet enumerates the numerous good reasons why he believes what he believes. You—the readers of this blog—may be a part of this story. Some of you may play small parts and some of you may play large parts. But forward motion depends on what you (and I) do: “While I believe this progress can occur, I am far from certain that it will. Achieving it will depend on human choices and actions in rich, middle-income, and poor countries alike.” The Great Surge is outside the typical Grant Writing Confidential reader’s domain: Most of us work in or with domestic nonprofits. Yet the story is fascinating and many of the principles described in The Great Surge apply to nonprofits of all types.

It is easy to experience myopia and to think that collective efforts aren’t working. Yet Radelet reminds us that

A major transformation is underway—and has been for two decades now—in the majority of the world’s poorest countries, largely unnoticed by much of the world. Since the early 1990s, 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.

Consider this post notice of the “largely unnoticed” news. It probably won’t go viral because it doesn’t describe war, famine, atrocities, injustice, celebrity gossip, or celebrity sexting scandals. But progress itself matters, even if it goes unheralded. In The Great Surge Radelet describes how “poverty, income, health and education, and democracy and government” have all been largely improved through a combination of better government policies, the fall of communism, technology, and, crucially, nonprofit work. Those factors must work together. Smart nonprofits have of course realized this and are attempting to make them work together.

Radelet also reminds us of how storytelling applies to how people perceive the world:

When I lived in Indonesia in the early 1990s, I arrived with a somewhat romanticized view of the beauty of the people working in rice paddies, together with reservations about the rapidly growing factory jobs. The longer I was there, the more I realized how incredibly difficult it is to work in the rice fields. It’s a backbreaking grind [. . .] So, it was not too much of a surprise that when factory jobs opened offering wages of $2 a day, hundreds of people lined up just to get a shot at applying.

Part of the grant writer’s job involves explaining things that may not be obvious to funders. Some of grant writing’s challenge involves knowing when to think inside the box and knowing when to break someone else’s “romanticized view.” Radelet got his view broken first-hand. You may not have that luxury.

One hilarious section occurs in Radelet’s review of the history of people predicting eminent population / resource disaster, which starts with Malthus and runs into the 1980s. It took economist Julian Simon and his book The Ultimate Resource to refute “those who believed that the world faced imminent disaster from population pressure and resource constraints.”

The people who tend to write about such things also usually forget that innovation tends to expand the resource pie, allow us to do more with less, and make products and services more efficient. That process depends on educated individuals interacting in dense networks that allow people to learn from each other and come up with new ideas. This process isn’t solely related to fields like battery chemistry.

I’ve read many pieces about the futility of foreign aid that ends up with NGOs (non-governmental organizations, the term used for non-US nonprofits), and, sometimes, grants for domestic nonprofits). Radelet, however, points out that “Despite the shortcomings, the bulk of the evidence shows that, overall, aid has helped support development progress.” That’s particularly true in global health. But change comes slowly—so slowly that it may feel imperceptible to those on the ground. For many of us working in many domains, the myth of Sisyphus resonates because the effort put forth feels gigantic relative to the benefits.

I’m familiar with being a foot soldier—at least with respect to grant writing and education—who affects only a tiny portion of these fields. Many of you reading this are likely to be foot soldiers too. If any presidents or senators are reading this, let me say hi and suggest that you give us a call. I know what being a foot soldier in education is like because I teach college English and technical writing; consequently, I see what colleges and universities (or “IHEs” in edu-speak) look like from the bottom.

When we work for IHEs, writing TRIO, HSI, Title III, Strengthening Working Families Initiative (SWFI), or other grants, I get to see what colleges look like from the top. I register the feelings of administrators and the needs of anonymous people who’re charged with overseeing the lives of thousands of students. I know that, from both perspectives, progress can feel incidental or impossible. Some days it feels like things are sliding backwards. But things only move forward slowly, one decision at a time, and through an incalculably large amount of human effort. Radelet is reminding us to not stop believing. Don’t lose sight of larger goals and larger progress. Don’t stop believing.


Chris Blattman gave us the original pointer to the book.

Social Innovation Fund Not Terribly Innovative, But Confirms That Getting Grants Is Not Like Winning an Olympic Gold Medal

Faithful readers will remember “Why Winning an Olympic Gold Medal is Not Like Getting a Carol M. White Physical Education Program (PEP) Grant,” in which I opined that in getting grants, the race does not always belong to the swift. It seems I scooped the New York Times. In today’s edition, Stephanie Strom tells the depressing tale of how the perhaps inappropriately named Social Innovation Fund (SIF) awarded $50,000,000 to applicants with “mediocre scores” in “Nonprofit Fund Faces Questions About Conflicts and Selection Procedures.” Nothing is innovative about not giving grants to applicants with the highest score, but it is innovative that SIF has lots of obvious conflicts of interest and has not “disclosed who reviewed the grants—or who applied for them or the ratings the applicants received.” I can think of a couple of pretty good reasons for the secrecy: they funded who they felt like funding and are ashamed of this obviously boneheaded move.

As I pointed out in my blog post, it is not uncommon for federal agencies to select grant awardees from among technically correct applications, even low scoring ones (SIF is a nonprofit that somehow got what amounts to a $50 million congressional earmark). Usually, however, the funder doesn’t make a secret of the award process and doesn’t shred the review sheets, which SIF apparently did. This is not only not transparent, its a reminds a grizzled grant writer of the missing 18 minutes of the Watergate tapes. As I pointed in a post from two years ago, “It’s a Grant, Not a Gift: A Primer on Grants Management,” “The secret to grant management is to remember that everything related to a grant is likely public information, so don’t do anything you wouldn’t mind seeing on the front page of the local newspaper.”

In this case SIF did something dumb enough to end up in the New York Times. If only Paul Carttar, SIF Executive Director, read Grant Writing Confidential regularly, he wouldn’t look at best stupid or at worst . . . well, you decide what he looks like. In writing proposals, we try never to write the word “horse” under the picture of a horse—or _______ under the picture of a horse’s rear end.

The SIF fiasco has created such a stir in the normally staid climes of the world of big nonprofits that Ruth McCambridge, Editor of the Nonprofit Quarterly, said she may file a request for all the applications under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).* As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it, “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Secrecy and grant making are a bad combination. I also don’t think much of the recent trend of Congress giving huge grants to national nonprofits, which in turn dole out grants through dubious RFP processes. How does SIF help human services get delivered? As far as I can tell, they fund who they want to fund and likely take a large administrative rake off the top. Why not just have any unit of DHHS run the RFP process for “financing the replication of nonprofit programs that work,” which is supposedly what SIF is doing? I recently wrote a post about another example of a national nonprofit, YouthBuild USA, running a quasi-secret RFP process in A Secret YouthBuild SMART RFP Found and a Not-So-Secret YouthBuild SGA to be Issued.

A note of optimism in all of this doom and gloom about potentially wired competitions brought to us by congressional earmarks for national nonprofits: the vast majority of RFP processes are not wired in any way. Still, it’s just a reality that for many reasons, the highest scoring proposal may not be funded. But your organization will never get a grant unless it submits a technically correct and compelling proposal on time.

For example, we were hired about ten years ago by one of the five largest cities in the US to re-write what was probably the last Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) proposal ever submitted. UDAG is a long-defunct HUD program from the Carter era. Our client was told by HUD that $3 million in returned UDAG funds was theirs in a sole-source submission. All they had to do was submit an application.

The city managed to annoy the HUD Program Officer, who hadn’t gotten the memo that this proposal was supposed to be funded. He rejected it as being technically deficient. We were then hired to fix this mess, and we found the dusty UDAG regs from 1978 and wrote a new proposal that was technically correct. Voila: the $3 million UDAG grant was promptly awarded and helped to ensure construction of a public venue in the city, which shows up on TV regularly. Can you guess the city and project? If you can, we’ll come up with an appropriate prize. The point of this story is that even with a wired RFP process or earmark, the applicant must get the application technically correct or they will screw up a free lunch.


* If you ever do send a FOIA request, let the public official know in advance that you plan to, which will give her the opportunity to say, “Oh, as luck would have it, the info you want is right here on my credenza,” and save time all around. Be sure to use Certified Mail.