Two days ago, I was taking a break on a rural beach in Liberia. On a distant point across point the bay was a big cell tower. Next thing I know, I’m checking my email (Why? Why?). Amidst the avalanche of stuff I mostly won’t get to, a friend had sent me a link to an essay, “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems.”
I clicked it and was immediately riveted. Courtney Martin examines the way people from rich countries here find themselves compelled to tackle problems in poor countries over there, problems they often know little about, in settings they know nothing about. That compulsion leads them to ignore deep problems here and launch soft-headed efforts over there that range from unproductive to outright destructive. The piece is beautifully written, replete with vivid examples of well-intentioned stupidity, and it even features photos of presumably well-meaning young white people in the midst of cringe-worthy neocolonial behavior. The assured, knowing tone of the piece, along with my own familiarity with her examples, left me with that satisfying smugness of being one of the smart ones who knows better. And as easy as that, I was seduced.
As I thought about it the next day, though, I realized: Hey, that was me! I was that clueless young do-gooder! At 19, I talked my way onto a medical team going to care for Cambodian refugees in Thailand. I had exactly zero useful skills. Within a month, innate recklessness and monumentally poor judgment on the part of my supervisors landed me in the middle of a war in Cambodia. I dodged shrapnel. I got both kinds of malaria at the same time. I rolled a truck at night on a bridge. I had a wonderful time, I was a complete liability, and of course I decided to go to medical school so I could be a Doctor Without Borders.
While in medical school, I started a health worker education project in the Peruvian Andes—don’t ask me why, I just did. We took American doctors and medical students, and local village health workers on a long trek through the mountains, seeing patients together and hanging out. It was not a great use of resources. We didn’t do any lasting good, but we didn’t do much harm. Oh well.
Here’s the thing, though: I absolutely would not be doing what I am today were it not for those trips and that silly little project. The work in Peru led directly to the establishment of the Mulago Foundation. That set in motion the long learning process that took me from newly minted doctor to head of a foundation focused on poverty and obsessed with real impact at scale.
My own dubious beginnings leave me with a bit more patience for oblivious young do-gooders who talk too much and listen too little. I was one, and for longer than was really necessary. I’ve noticed that the ones who keep going back seem to learn from the bracing reality bath of their failures, and those failures are usually more embarrassing than catastrophic. Then, too, I’m seeing more and more who skip that stage entirely. There are a bunch of world-class start-ups where good leaders are making excellent use of smart young people who will work like dogs for next to nothing. Remarkable outfits like One Acre Fund, Komaza, Last Mile Health, Muso, Myagro, even bigger institutions like CHAI—they’ve all depended on the work of bright people drawn by the pull of other people’s problems. Some of those people have subsequently started smart new organizations of their own. Yes, some come off as insufferable know-it-alls, and yes, headquarters can sometimes feel like summer camp, but there is a great deal of lasting good out there that wouldn’t have happened without them. They certainly have a lot more to offer than I did, and it’s worth noting that these are people who have lots of other options—most of them easier and way more lucrative.
None of us are going to solve, say, poverty in Africa. The most we can hope for is to be part of a collective effort that makes a real dent in the problem. But the truth is that it’s easier to make a difference there, and as Courtney points out, the problems are much more severe. Kids are dying, families do starve, students do “graduate” unable to read a simple sentence. Over there, you can cut the mortality rate in half with a smart intervention that costs 20 bucks per capita, and you can provide a high-quality primary education for 50 bucks a kid.
Moving the needle on anything here is really hard and insanely expensive: All in all, working on poverty in Africa seems less likely to breed cynicism than trying to solve homelessness in San Francisco. One could argue that whole populations mired in structural poverty need fresh ideas and energetic outsiders, even if some of those ideas are wacky and those outsiders callow. I’ve never seen real bottom-up progress without some element of outside-in ideas and energy. And keep in mind it’s up to us funders to keep anything dumb from getting too far.
Maybe, just maybe, this piece conflates a small problem—naive beginners doing ill-informed stuff here and there—and a big problem: people who really should know better doing or funding excusably dumb stuff at a bigger scale. The system that celebrates and eggs on young leaders doing dumb stuff is perhaps more culpable than they are. The energy-harnessing soccer ball SOCCKET was a silly idea, started by naive young people, but it was endorsed by no less than Bill Clinton himself. PlayPumps, a merry-go-round that pumped water, forged ahead under the direction of people who were definitely not in their first rodeo, and there were plenty of smart people telling it was a bad idea all along. In any case, I would guess that the collective damage done by misguided social entrepreneurs would represent an imperceptible fraction of the damage inflicted by big aid organizations when they’ve gotten it wrong.
I think things are getting better. There seem to be fewer big, avoidable failures like PlayPumps, One Laptop per Child, and the original LifeStraw. I’ve looked at Echoing Green’s latest picks—there’s great stuff there, and it’s OK that there were a ton of applications. While social entrepreneurship has a long way to go to live up to the hype, people are more serious about impact, and momentum is growing. I could go on for a long time about all the great organizations and products that have emerged in the last five years, but I’ve got a word limit here, and it wouldn’t be fair to pick a few.
I like Millennials and whatever you call the bunch that’s come after them—they care a lot more about saving the world than my own generation did. That’s why Courtney’s essay is really important: I hope they all read it, reflect on it, behave better, and do smarter stuff in the right paces as a result. I wish that my blissfully ignorant, too-dumb-to-be-scared, 19-year-old self could have read it before making his own leap into the world of other people’s problems.
That said, I like to think he would have gone anyway.
Read more stories by Kevin Starr.