Change the world, practically

3 minute read

A lot of blogs have been pointing to this Washington Post article, where young idealistic DC postgrads bemoan how difficult it is to find long-term paying work in the charity and international development field.

But now the 29-year-old faces a predicament shared by many young strivers in Washington's public interest field. After years of amassing so many achievements, they struggle to find full-time employment with decent pay and realize they might not get exactly what they set out for. Hanley, a think tank temp who dreams of aiding the impoverished and reducing gender discrimination in developing countries, is stuck.

The tenor of the comments is well reflected by Rand Simberg's opening on the subject, "Boo hoo." I'm linking to Simberg because he gives an intelligent opinion, and also has an interesting comments section. Simberg's opinion is simple -- you can make a lot more difference by making some money and then applying it to a problem, than you can by nibbling at the problem in an NGO.

But the real problem is that many of these policy types, particularly at the NGOs, want to engage in the type of do goodery that the supposed beneficiaries aren't necessarily asking for, and don't value that much (or perhaps value negatively). And in the cases in which they do, they don't necessarily have the money to pay for it.

Some of his commenters are incensed at the idea that "liberal arts and social science types" find it difficult to "make a difference" in the way Simberg proposes -- by gaining some skills and making some money.

I think that a lot of the conversation is short-sighted, in that there are ways to attain both goals at once. A lot of young people want to make a difference in developing countries, and the Post article discusses some of the problems. But I don't understand why any of these people would have thought that Washington DC was the place to accomplish their goals.

It seems to me that if you want to help in the world in that way, you should get trained in the medical or engineering fields, and go to the place you want to help. Building things, devising more efficient distribution processes, coordinating work -- all these things require technical and administrative training.

Maybe you think you're not the best at engineering or medicine. Maybe you're used to getting passing grades with no effort in the liberal arts, and you're afraid to work hard for C's and D's as an engineer. Maybe you don't want to spend the six years in school it would take to get dual training in engineering and a language (and may I suggest some anthropology?).

But finishing with the right training -- even if you barely squeak through -- will make you a heck of a lot more useful to the people you want to help! Even if you aren't the best engineer in the world, you can use your training to help in the area you want. And you can combine technical training with the areas you want to make a difference in -- maybe natural resources, languages you will need in the area of the world you choose, or, may I suggest, anthropology?

This path comes with the bonus of making you employable. The choice we are talking about is between (a) spending two more years in school to get the right training, followed by employment with advancement potential, or (b) spending ten years or more competing for a series of temporary jobs where you never see the people you are "helping."

If you think that more investment needs to go to a country, then make it possible by being the kind of worker that a company can use to make the investment happen.