So You Want to Do Good
A question from a reader:
I teach an introduction to ag econ class, and today a young student came to chat with me about economic development. She is sincerely and passionately interested in helping developing countries reach our prosperity. She is eager for information about why some countries grow and others do not, and plans to join the Peace Corps after graduating.
To help her, I purchased a copy of your new book From Poverty To Prosperity today, but thought that you might be able to help also. She is eager to help poor people, but is very concerned that what she does has a real, positive impact. She is altruistic, but careful and prudent about her altruism.
Because I have a daughter with the same, er, problem, I have thought about this question a lot. My suggestions.
1. For other reading, try Lant Pritchett’s Let My People Come.
2. Also, become a regular reader of Bill Easterly’s blog. One of his posts happened to link to an article set in Arusha, Tanzania, where my daughter worked last summer. It’s an article that ends without any real point, but my daughter says that it aptly gets at some of the feelings she experienced.
3. I sent my daughter this story about a young woman who started a school in Ecuador.
4. I advise networking. Michael Strong of FLOW, who gave a talk that I recently recommended, combines good sense, idealism, and a lot of connections both here and in underdeveloped countries. So does Michael Fairbanks, of Seven Fund. Try to get in touch with them.
5. Finally, ask yourself what is your comparative advantage. If you are good at research and analysis, then perhaps givewell or SevenFund would be organizations for which to work. If you are an effective hands-on entrepreneur, then perhaps you should try to emulate the young woman who founded the school in Ecuador. However, it is always possible that your comparative advantage is earning a good living in the U.S. and donating money effectively. Bill Gates has the potential to do more good than many people who have put much more of their time and effort into development.
6. My own personal inclination is to see global poverty as a problem of people being “off the grid.” If people in remote villages could connect to the U.S. economy, through trade, communication, and sharing of knowledge, then I doubt that they would remain poor. For my daughter, this raises larger questions about whether such connections would make villagers happier or less happy. Those larger questions I cannot pretend to answer.