What Should I Tell My Students To Do If They Want to Change the World?

by Jake Wobig

The walk between my apartment and campus takes about half an hour to complete, and one of the ways I pass that time every day is by listening to podcasts on foreign affairs issues.  Yesterday morning on my walk in I listened to a moderated discussion with Thomas Pogge given at the Carnegie Council back on January 19, 2012.  Pogge is an ethicist and a scholar of international relations, and a lot of his recent work looks at the ethical issues associated with global poverty.

The whole discussion was interesting, but the part that really stuck out to me occurred about 1/3 of the way through.  Pogge argued that those who are indifferent to the current international economic system are morally analogous to passive Germans during the Nazi era, or those who acquiesced to slavery in the antebellum United States.

The idea is that the international economy is structured in such a way that the vast majority of the global population is trapped in completely unnecessary poverty.  This unremitting poverty stymies the lives of billions of people, and in fact kills many of them.  As Pogge points out, 1/3 of all people die of poverty-related causes.  Every year more than 7 million children under 5 die from easily preventable diseases like diarrhea, malaria and measles essentially because they are poor.  Close to 1 billion people do not have access to clean water, and more than 1/3 of human beings don’t have access to adequate sanitation.  Even many who are not in such desperate straits often live extraordinarily difficult lives, a point illustrated in a much-talked-about recent article in the New York Times about the factories in China that produces Apple’s popular iPads and iPhones.

(I highly recommend the documentary Darwin’s Nightmare (streaming on Netflix) as a demonstration of how the international economic system actually preys on this poverty in many parts of the globe, as the rich countries leverage their privileged position (inherited from a past of colonialism) to provide low-cost goods to their citizens, and meanwhile contribute to a host of other problems in developing states.)

Pogge has a dialogue later in the discussion in which he attributes at least part of the problem to a lack of awareness on the part the Western public.  The world as it is feels normal to us, and we have to see that this normalcy harbors within it great injustice.  Once that realization is made, it is implied, people will do something.

But do what?

There are two problems here, one of diagnosis and one of treatment.  The first is that I think that Pogge and other  development activists are wrong if they believe average people do not care about global poverty.  At the very least, I know that college students are intensely interested in the issue.  Over the last four years I have taught ten courses at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and almost without fail the issues that get my students most excited are global poverty and human rights.  My students care a great deal about these issues, especially after I present a few of the facts, and they really want to know what they can do to help.

But that part is a problem.  What I usually tell them is to set up a Kiva account, call their congressman to ask for an end to cotton subsidies, and to read End of Poverty, Bottom Billion, and White Man’s Burden.  But the thing is that I am not an expert.  If you look at what the experts are saying, you get almost no guidance as to what the average person can do in the fight against global poverty.  In fact, it sometimes seems that many development experts seem to spend a great deal of time discouraging lay people from doing anything for fear that amateurs might do something counter-productive.

This was epitomized in a much-discussed blog post from the development blog Tales From the Hood that made the rounds last summer.  Tales From the Hood has recently switched to a private blog so unfortunately you cannot see the original text, but the gist was as follows.  There was an American woman who was greatly moved by poverty issues and moved to Thailand and set up her own NGO there doing something, I don’t remember what.  Whatever she was doing, the experts believed that what she was doing was counterproductive and actually perpetuating poverty rather than alleviating it.  I have no reason to doubt the experts’ judgment on this matter, and I am well aware that this probably happens with a lot of aid projects.  Apparently she was confronted with this problem, and her response was that at least she was “doing something.”  The blog post castigated her for doing more harm than good and made a strident argument that amateurs had no place to play in development.

Some version of this seems to come out most of the time that development experts talk about ordinary people trying to contribute to the fight against poverty.  I follow many development experts on Twitter, and a fair amount of the chatter is sniping at projects or drives led by people who are not trained economists.  Let’s leave aside for the moment the distinct possibility that no one knows how to do aid effectively, economics Ph.D. or not.  This failure by experts to describe anything that normal people can do that would be useful is a tremendous lost opportunity.

Take as an example this article about a group of development experts talking to college students about global poverty issues at the University of Washington last year.  This group had a huge turnout of students; you can see in the picture that there were no seats left and students were sitting on the floor, all there to find out how they could help in the struggle against global poverty.  Now read the article and good luck finding any practical thing that a person could do that would be useful.  What the experts did instead was spend the whole time saying development is really complex, we need to avoid assuming we know more than locals, and to avoid imposing Western values.  The only affirmative action that anyone suggested is that students could save up money and go live in a village in a developing country for a year to learn the culture.  (I’m not kidding, check out the article).

The admonitions are obviously very important, but the failure to describe any positive action students can take is not very helpful.  My guess is that most students who attended that lecture probably went away with whatever enthusiasm they might have had diminished.  If any of those students ever take any action to try to help in the effort against global poverty, it probably will be in spite of that presentation, not because of any beneficial effect.  It would have been far better to present a list of things that a normal 20-year-old could do that would be useful to go along with the information about sensitivity to complexity (and perhaps even as a way to illustrate ways to manage that complexity).

I would also point out that unless development experts provide some guidance as to what would be helpful, there is some portion of the population that will go out and “do something” anyway because of an innate desire to help or entrepreneurial spirit, and some of that will be wasteful or harmful.  See the recent flap about Invisible Children’s documentary on the LRA.  Better to give people some idea of good things that can be done rather than leave them to come up with things on their own where they are likely to be influenced by the latent colonial White Man’s Burden view of the developing world still prevalent in our pop culture.

But what do we do?  What should I tell my students that they can do to become involved in the global fight against poverty?  How does the average person avoid complicity in what Pogge equates with grave crimes against humanity?

I don’t really know – you got my version above but this is not my field of expertise.  Ideally, what would happen is that a bunch of experts would write down short descriptions of practical steps that your average college student, or average middle-aged worker, or average pensioner, etc., can do that would genuinely be useful.  The “Annual Questions” series of questionnaires that Edge puts to prominent scientists would be a good model.

Maybe there really is nothing that the average person can do and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it.  However, I think that is highly unlikely.  And I think it has to be more than just “awareness.”  Telling people they have a moral duty to become aware of a serious issue but then telling them they have no role to play in its outcome is not helpful.  (Haranguing people for not caring but then saying they are not qualified to do anything is a bit perverse and accomplishes nothing more than validating an activist’s sense of moral superiority).

And maybe there genuinely is nothing of any kind that a normal person can do about global poverty or about persistent human rights problems.  But before I accept that, I want to see a very strong argument to that effect.

So what do you think I should tell my students when they ask whether there is anything they can do to help alleviate global poverty?