Arnold Kling  

So You Want to Do Good

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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.


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COMMENTS (15 to date)
jr. writes:

QUOTE: ... this raises larger questions about whether such connections would make villagers happier or less happy.

I always remember Ben Franklin said that we humans could always find excuses. My feeling is that most of the time the questions about happiness are raised is when somebody wants excuses.

Ed Hanson writes:

I would suggest reading any the works of Hernando de Soto and the wealth that can be created by development of private property rights. Just don't fall into the quick fix trap of land confiscation and redistribution. Private property rights is a long term process of building wealth, not unlike compound interest.

Robert Scarth writes:

"...this raises larger questions about whether such connections would make villagers happier or less happy. Those larger questions I cannot pretend to answer."

The answer you can give to this question is that it will make some happier and some less happy. I think you can also say that those who will be less happy are those who will lose power, and those who will be more happy are those who will gain power. Among those who will gain power are women, young people and smart but low status people. Among those who will lose power are men, older people, and those who have powerful connections in the society. I would count these as changes for the better overall, although others might disagree.

David Zetland writes:

The best book on *applied* development that I ever read was ripples from the zambezi by Sirolli. He also looks at development INSIDE the US and Australia.

In Peace Corps you learn about yourself and rarely help others. That's a good result, but don't get your hopes up.

The best thing you can *do* for people in developing countries is help them "move" here -- as students, migrants or internet participants. They benefit from our ideas and institutions, and there's no way to "fix" a country except organically, by its own citizens.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

If you are "sincerely and passionately interested in helping developing countries reach our prosperity", the best thing you can do is to fight the lies that propagate both in the US and in the rest of the world that capitalism is evil and that socialism brings significant benefits.

Instead, preach to your friends and anyone who will listen the facts on how economic freedom enhances growth.

Until the people of poor countries believe in economic freedom (which may very well involve throwing away elements of their existing culture), they will remain poor, regardless of what anyone else does.

Yancey Ward writes:

Without secure property rights, there is no path out of poverty for a society. It is the only way to get a people to save more than than they can conceal physically, and deferred consumption and investment is the only way forward.

Rod McFadden writes:

Do gooders might also consider something really far out... like engineering (http://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/upgrade/4273674.html)

agnostic writes:

She should read *Violence and Social Orders* just so she knows what she's in for regarding institutions and organizations.

The authors wrote an article applying this framework to why interventionist development has failed:

http://politicalscience.stanford.edu/faculty/weingast/LAOsinDevelWorld_NWWW20070723.pdf

And Weingast wrote an article on why the rule of law is so difficult to cement in the developed world:

http://politicalscience.stanford.edu/faculty/weingast/WeingastROL.pdf

It seems like whatever she does should have the aim of getting the country's people to the "doorstep conditions," or if they're there, to make the "transition proper."

Even if how to do that isn't clear, at least she'll know how to think about it -- and will be prepared for the difference between open and limited access orders. Many reforms, whether from liberals or libertarians, would destabilize the rent-creation that holds together the society and raise the specter of violence breaking out.

First do no harm!

Milton Recht writes:

In most developing countries, workers' expertise and the countries' primary products for export are agricultural based. Most developed countries put import tariffs on agricultural products to protect their own farmers from international competition. In developed countries, farming is a small percentage of gdp and the workforce, but in developing countries, it is a large percentage.

If developed countries removed their import tariffs on agricultural imports, developing countries would have larger markets for their exports, the poor countries gdp would grow, and the standard of living for the average and poor person in developing countries would improve.

So surprisingly, the best way to help the poor in another country is to stay home and work to have agricultural import tariffs on products from developing countries reduced. Stay home and make the media, Congress and others concerned about world hunger and low standards of living know that it is their own country's agricultural tariffs, which are directly responsible for the plight of the poor in other parts of the world.

Doc Merlin writes:

The "happiness question" is how westerners justify keeping "quaint" cultures poor and downtrodden. Its sickening and immoral.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

When my daughter gets old enough to have this "problem", I will tell her to first make a million bucks, and only then give away her time.

As for global poverty, the "root cause" might be bad governance or tribalism, or it might be because of gangs of youths armed with AK47s, or it might be Western unions or corporations blocking cheap third world imports. But whatever it is, it is not poor soil, lack of access to water, or few natural resources.

Surely "The Mystery Of Capital" by De Soto is the definitive book that explains how Second and Third World countries make it practically impossible to own property or raise capital.

ionides writes:

Regarding Doc Merlin's comment, here is an interesting quote from Keith Maskus:


"The fact that economic structural transformation has impacts on the viability of villages and cultures, with strong sociological implications, lies outside the scope of this discussion. All I will say about it here is that whether the disappearance of traditional economic activity is a good thing or a bad thing is not altogether obvious. Not many opponents of globalization actually take the time to ask poor people if they like working in subsistence agriculture or in street activities."

http://spot.colorado.edu/~maskus/teach/4413/Trade_and_Poverty.doc

Caitlyn Nesbitt writes:

I personally think that the reason many countries are not as developed as America is because of their government. Many governments hide much from their people, and some may not know anything about life elsewhere. They might think life is the same everywhere.

A book I highly recommend is "Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. It talks about their journey to Pakistan and thir mission to bring peace by building one school at a time. Education is the real hope for these people. If we, as Americans, can shine some light into their darkness even one person at a time I truly believe it will start to make a difference.

Kling's daughter writes:

Kling's daughter here:

Because I am essentially majoring in the study of development, I have many things I would like to say in response to this chain of comments. I have engaged in countless discussions on the various issues mentioned above and I have had the privilege of looking at them from a variety of perspectives: economic, political, and anthropological.

However, I am going to limit myself and respond only to those of you who have suggested that this discussion of happiness is purely an excuse to do nothing. I can whole-heartedly assure you that when I bring up the happiness questions, I by no means do so in order to find reasons why the Western world should ignore the problems of developing countries. I would never allow myself to use cultural relativism to hide from the suffering of others.

My goal in asking these questions is to force myself, and possibly others, to think critically about the goals and purposes of development BEFORE taking action. When we assume that the goal of development is to become the US, we assume some sort of moral high ground which claims that we know what is in everyone's best interest. In so doing, we immediately crush the voice of the poor. We make them into receivers of development, rather than agents of development.

Look, I am not suggesting that poor people are happier working in the unprofitable informal sector or in extremely labor-intensive agriculture. In asking the happiness questions, what I am really trying to get at is this idea that the poor themselves may have their own visions of desired change. And, those visions of change may not include becoming EXACTLY like America. And maybe, just maybe, the current "receivers" of development have their own ideas of how to combined the great aspects of America/capitalism with the great aspects of their own societies. Does that mean we should not help them achieve their desired changes? No, not at all. It simply means we should first hear the desires of those seeking help before offering a helping hand.

David R. Henderson writes:

Nicely said, Kling's daughter. All of it. :-)
Best,
David

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