When I was in my 20s, I taught street children in a town in Kenya who couldn’t afford a normal school. My roommate was a British researcher on tropical diseases. We were idealists, trying to make the world better. I think we did. But I stayed in that little town long enough to notice an institution that was probably helping more poor people than we were: a Coca-Cola bottling plant, where unskilled women made $3 a day washing bottles. They had no job security or possibly of advancement. But the money was enough to send their children to school and buy malaria medicine. The jobs gave them dignity and kept the need for charity at bay.
So it is exciting, all these years later, to watch the growth of a trend called “impact investing.” People have started to notice that private enterprise can help the poor as much as charities can. Sometimes even more. Wealthy do-gooders who want a “social return” on their investments, not just a financial one, support companies that hire the poor.