The Carnegie way

Special Issue | Andrew Carnegie's old home displays methods of helping the poor that the old millionaire would have liked

Issue: "Effective Compassion," Sept. 1, 2007


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.

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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?


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