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This article was published on October 11, 2015

Mark Zuckerberg’s year of books: Portfolios of the Poor

Mark Zuckerberg’s year of books: Portfolios of the Poor

It was the chicken, vegetables, and bag of licorice that did her in.

Gwyneth Paltrow gave herself a C- on the $29-a-week Food Stamp Challenge, and even predicted at the outset that she’d never make it through. Self fulfilling prophesy or no, subsisting on very little money is hard—and most of the planet’s poorest people do it on $2 a day or under.

It’s a common misconception that those below the poverty line drive themselves into impecunity via poor financial management and carelessness, requiring NGO aid just to survive. But Portfolios of the Poor—Mark Zuckerberg’s 17th pick for his Year of Books—offers an entirely different perspective.

Collins, Murdoch, Rutherford, and Ruthven argue that poverty does not turn people into charity cases. They highlight the creative financial smarts of those who live in poverty and explain why giving to NGOs and charities might not be the best way to help.

Read on for a surprising look at money, poverty, and what it will actually take to improve lives of the world’s poor.

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World's Poor Live on $2 a DayA Year of Books Pick #17: Portfolios of the Poor


What’s it about?

Portfolios of the Poor details the creative financial strategies that the world’s poorest people use to get by. The authors delve into how people with no financial background whatsoever design and manage complex portfolios in ways that will make you wonder why investors in wealthy countries don’t follow their lead.

Who wrote it?

Daryl Collins is the senior associate at Bankable Frontier Associates in Boston. She was responsible for organizing the latest version of the financial diaries in South Africa and holds both a B.Sc., and an M.Sc in Economics from the London School of Economics.

The other three authors, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven, are all experts in economics with international experience, primarily in microeconomics.

3 Things You Should Know from Portfolios of the Poor

1. Lack of stable income doesn’t mean a person is bereft of financial skills.


Many people in wealthy first-world countries think that working with international organizations like NGOs are the best way to help the poor. The sad fact is that big groups can actually perpetuate misunderstandings about the world’s poorest people. Here’s why.

The standards for remediating world poverty are usually set by international organizations, which apply them as if all poor people shared the same reality. For example, the poorest people in the world tend to have highly irregular incomes—a fact that makes standards like“a dollar per day,” which refers to an average value, unhelpful for understanding and aiding the poor.

What’s more, such standards are often applied indiscriminately to all poor people across the world, which fails to take into account completely different regions and contexts. Someone living in Bangladesh might earn the same as someone in New York City, so the things they can afford are dramatically different, since the latter is so much more expensive than the former.

Over all, attempts to convert global living standards and incomes to make them accurate relative to one another tend to result in failure. It’s tremendously difficult for international organizations to accurately measure poverty across diverse economies, societies and cultures.

3. Offering reliable and professional financial services is the best way big organizations can help.


We’ve established that international organizations have a difficult time comprehending the realities of poverty in different countries. The good news is that national institutions and groups, like the Association for Social Advancement can provide both assistance and more effective solutions.

National organizations take into account the need in poor communities for safety and reliability by offering opportunities for the world’s poor to securely invest their limited resources. In countries like Bangladesh, India, and South Africa, banks forge agreements with the government to make options for financial growth more accessible to the poorest citizens.

One way they do so is ensuring that every person has a personal bank account. This simple step provides an important defense from robbery, which poses major problems in poor countries, while also preventing the money from being lost and allowing the account holder to make official investments.

One important concept from Portfolios of the Poor:

Social bonds and cooperation are key to helping the poorest people make due with what they have.

Both official and unofficial social contracts bolster the financial strength of the poor. One official agreement that’s common in communities where people live on less than $2 a day is collective investment: a joint effort to bring in more income for everyone. For instance, certain banks, like the Grameen Bank, focus on lending money to poor communities.

This allows those in poverty to raise the capital necessary for small businesses and to collectively grow their wealth. As far as unofficial agreements go: it’s common for the destitute to receive informal credit from a shopkeeper or friend who has a regular income. These unofficial loans help people in poverty maintain decent living standards even when they fall on hard times.

One surprising idea from Portfolios of the Poor:

A major advance that national organizations have brought to poorer countries while doing financial work is, believe it or not, professionalism.

It may seem odd, but professionalism is not a given for financial collaborations in poor countries. Many people end up relying on unofficial financial deals that often involve neighbors or local business owners who don’t use signed contracts. It’s a different story altogether when people make official investments through registered organizations. Financial partners are held accountable through written contracts and are subject to the law—facts that make all of these cooperative enterprises run much smoother than their unofficial counterparts.

If you remember only one thing, make it this:

By collaborating, making wise investments, and thinking creatively, people can always find a way to survive and make the most of even the tightest economic situation. By learning from the strategies of the world’s poorest people, you can understand both how to help them and how to apply their principles of economic growth to your own financial strategies.

Read Next: Mark Zuckerberg’s year of books: William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience

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