Smart Risks—How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems

smart risk

Smart Risks—How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems

Title: Smart Risks—How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems

Writer: Aleah Ostrowski


Introduction and Goals

The goal of the authors of this book was to demonstrate and explain to readers that investing in local communities and the creation of meaningful interpersonal relationships with a strong focus on the use of local knowledge is an investment that is worth it in terms of the risks associated (Lentfer & Cothran, 2017, p.1).


Book cover of the book Smart Risks by Jennifer Lentfer and Tanya Cothran

The authors certainly fulfill the guidelines and goals of the book and this is evident throughout the clear table of contents at the beginning of the book and throughout each chapter. Every chapter includes what can be drawn from the chapter and what can be taken away from the story that every author has presented and shared with the readers. This review will include theories that were addressed within the book, the proximity of the authors, the audience that it targets, ways that it could be improved and the strong points.

Theories and Methods

The authors explain the theories and methods that are used in this book in different ways. The first method is through story-telling. The book is first split up into five different smart risks which include; “investing in local expertise”, “being non-prescriptive and flexible, with a long-term outlook”, “looking to the grassroots for innovation”, “rethinking accountability” and “practicing vulnerability” (Lentfer & Cothran, 2017, Contents). Then the book is broken down into smaller parts which include first-hand stories from the different authors and their experiences with this particular topic in relation to the smart risks that are explained more broadly. Therefore, the theories are mainly explained through the method of telling a story, but at the end of each chapter there is a summary with the main points that the readers can draw from the book which was very useful. This provides the readers with an easy way of picking out the most important elements of the chapter and how the theories and methods can be learned and applied to the real world. The theories are very applicable to the book’s aims in terms of explaining how using these methods can contribute to taking smart risks within international development.


The authors are certainly close enough in distance to the topic because they are telling the story from their own point of view and explaining first hand experiences in terms of the challenges they may have faced or overcome throughout their time working in international development. Each chapter is written by a different author and is a unique experience from the next. It shows that not everyone’s experience working in international development is the same and provides insight for others.


Listening practice in a meeting between refugees and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs at a camp in the Parwan Se district of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012.

Listening practice in a meeting between refugees and the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs at a camp in the Parwan Se district of Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012

Not only do the authors tell the story from their own personal experiences but they also give advice for those that may be working or learning about international development and trying to improve the ways in which they can contribute by not only contributing but also simply listening to what the demands of different communities are. I would say that the whole book really avoids sounding judgmental or that they are in a position of power, in fact the authors sound as though they are really trying to put the power in the hands of local people and giving them the ability to use their knowledge in effective ways by providing them with the proper tools.

Relating to Literature

Since this book is fairly new, it is certainly encouraging ideas and theories that are still quite new to the international community in terms of working in development. Many large development banks are known for providing large loans to developing countries with high interest which are nearly impossible to pay back. However, some of the more recent findings are presenting the idea of small grants for developing communities and countries to put the power to allocate the funds in the hands of the local people without leaving them in debt (Bulow & Rogoff, 2005, p.393). Therefore, these findings, presented by Bulow and Rogoff in the article Grants versus Loans for Development Banks, support the same arguments made in Smart Risks in the way that it is explained that local knowledge is what will make the risk of small grants worth while (2005, p.393). The argument about providing small grants instead of large loans made in the article by Bulow and Rogoff is explained in more detail in Chapter 13 written by Tanya Cothran (2017, p.77). Cothran’s chapter concludes by explaining that small grants are more effective and beneficial because they place the power in the hands of business owners instead of the government (2017, p.79).


The book could be improved a several ways, but one of the main aspects that stood out was that the advice and conclusions that are given at the end of some of the chapters seem as though these are the only ways to do development correctly. Something that would bring a unique perspective to the book would be to incorporate some of the opinions and experiences of those currently living in communities in developing countries that the authors may have interacted with. Even though these authors have worked and studied in development, it would provide a more holistic perspective by incorporating the stories of those that are not in positions of power or privilege.

Target Audience

This book is an easy read and could certainly be understood from someone that is not studying or working in international development. Closer to the start of the book there is actually a section that explains who the book is meant for, which include “readers from individuals with small contributions to make, to large philanthropists, and heads of organizations with portfolios of millions to spend” (Lentfer & Cothran, 2017, p.13).  The beginning of the book starts off with different examples of real world people that are simply trying to help others in developing countries but may not know how or may not have the resources to help in an effective way (Lentfer & Cothran, 2017, p.1-3). Therefore, the language used is very simple and would be easy for almost anyone to understand. The structure itself conveys the ideas in a clear way and I think that the book would be suitable for undergraduate students, graduate students and experts because it provides a different perspective about how to focus on local development using small grants instead of large loans. I think that even some higher grade high school students would be able to read this book, possibly in a global studies class, just because the ideas are explained in plain words that are easy to understand. This book would be an enlightening read for young people that aspire to make a difference.

Conclusion and Praise

This book was completely well worth the read. I would certainly recommend it to others studying or working within international development but also to those that are not familiar with the reality of international development. The book is easy to read and provides a unique perspective on the use of small grants instead of focusing on large loans which many of the large international development organizations have used in the past and which continue to fail. As an international development student, this book was refreshing in terms of presenting another platform that could potentially be a better solution to providing funds to developing communities directly so that the power is in the hands of small businesses or those that are new entrepreneurs are trying to improve their livelihoods (Lentfer & Cothran, 2017, p.12).


Reference List

Bulow, J., & Rogoff, K. (2005). Grants versus Loans for Development Banks. IDEAS Working

Paper Series from RePEc, IDEAS Working Paper Series from RePEc, 2005.

Lentfer, J., & Cothran, T. (2017). Smart risks: how small grants are helping to solve some of the worlds biggest problems. Bourton on Dunsmore, UK: Practical Action Publishing Ltd.