Sending People vs. Sending Money

Steve Po-Chedley, a recent Union graduate and physics major, is spending the better part of a year in Uganda, as part of a new program set up by the college. As part of the program, he’s maintaining a blog, and recently posted some reflections on his work to date. The most interesting part is where he has some second thoughts about the project:

After a few weeks, some of the criticisms of this program haunted me. There are few metrics in how effective you are – I was a fairly major component of the P6 class, but I felt uncomfortable asking to give exams – homework was tough to give because they usually did assignments in their notebooks (I did give homework once, though, hopefully more next term). The kids in the morning were tougher to evaluate – have I achieved nothing if the two year olds do not know 1 – 10 in Luganda? I did some hard calculations: John estimates there are 10,000 people, ~50 percent of people are 0 – 14 years old, I interact with 350 kids if you count the Physical Education classes the headmistress has me teaching: I effect only 7 percent of kids in the village at best. And what is the long term value of my interactions? I wasn’t getting the struggling students to grasp the material much better if at all, the kids in the morning might come out of the week mastering a puzzle, a song, or 1 – 10, and the vegetables weren’t exactly thriving (weeds, which thrive under the same conditions we try to create for cabbages – water, sunlight, and fertile soil – are a constant enemy).

I started feeling somewhat useless – I teach kids things that, on a daily basis, are largely useless or at least negligible. Do they really need to know that sound is a type of energy? Or that the “I run” but “he runs”? Maybe my mentor was right – I’m not a nurse, this is a waste of money – a $2000 plane ticket could have paid two Ugandans (and pay them relatively well) to do a much better job of what I was trying to achieve.

This is a fairly consistent criticism of programs that send people from affluent Western countries out into the world to do good for a short time. It’s almost always true that more direct good could be done by sending the money spent on airfare to the country in question than will be done by the people during their stay.

This problem is really just a variant on the Sally Struthers problem– why not take the money spent to make tear-jerking tv commercials begging for aid for starving children, and spend it on food? The answer is the same for both.

Those Sally Struthers commercials are worthwhile because the people running the charities believe that they will bring in more money in donations than they cost to make. And they’ll continue to generate money for some time after the original expenditure would’ve run out.

The same is true, on a smaller scale, of programs like the one Steve is on. Yeah, the money spent on sending him there might’ve paid local people to do more work than Steve and Becky can do, given their relative lack of experience. But the personal connection between them and the students back here on campus can potentially do enough good to make up the difference.

For example, Steve talks elsewhere on the blog about chickens being given to local families. Some of the money for the chickens was raised by students back in Schenectady who put together a couple of fund-raising activities on campus. Those are contributions that wouldn’t've been made without Steve and Becky being there– Uganda isn’t on most college students’ radar.

The choice between sending people to do charitable work and sending money directly is a somewhat tricky one to balance out, and it may not be immediately obvious that the costs and benefits balance out. I think that most of the time they do, though.

Steve comes around to that position by the end of the post– it’s worth reading the whole thing. And it’s good to see that kind of frank assessment of the value of the program from the students involved. If the other students are having similar experiences, then the program is already more successful than I expected.

Comments

  1. #1 Uncle Al
    December 21, 2008

    Don’t administer medicine to the dead.

    Cabbage is loaded with thyroid poisons like goitrin. A fat, torpid, stupid population obtains.

    http://www.rsc.org/ej/NP/2004/b204039p/b204039p-f2.gif
    Altamura et al., J. Biol. Chem. 234(7) 1847 (1959)

  2. #2 Clark
    December 21, 2008

    The experience for Steve is also something that comes out of the cost of his plane ticket. He could have sent the money and had a week of feeling good about himself, but by going he will have a much deeper experience which will teach him (and people he interacts with for the rest of his life) much more than mailing a check. Many of those things won’t ever help Uganda directly at all, but they will help the world in general.

    I’m betting that the whole experience makes Steve a better person, and we will all benefit from that, in some tiny, tiny way.

  3. #3 Kevin
    December 21, 2008

    Yup – one of my conclusions after I did the peace corps (wonderful experience, btw — everyone should do it) was that I got more out of it than I gave. By far. And that’s okay. We need to send more americans overseas, to save ourselves from our own isolation and ignorance.

    -kevin

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    December 21, 2008

    The flip side of this concerns the people sent here. Back in the day, I remember people earning advanced degrees in fields like Admin and Higher Ed. Were they going home to create a mirror of our educational bureaucracy? Why? What they needed to create was a duplicate of the ag schools and ‘normal’ schools created 150 years ago in the US, not of a modern research university. The latter is unsustainable if you don’t have food and teachers.

    If those kids from Union help create a situation where the older kids can teach the younger ones, it won’t depend on outsiders forever.

  5. #5 Steve
    December 22, 2008

    Thanks for all the great comments and for taking the time to consider this issue, Chad. Uncle Al – looked at the diagram and x-ed it out, but I will do some research on that later. I think another plant, they call it dodo, might be a great alternative (leafy green). Clark (Todd?) and Kevin I agree wholeheartedly, half-way through time here. CCPhys – that is the goal, but it isn’t as easy as it may seem…I think we will be successful, though.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    December 22, 2008

    Steve: Don’t feel like you have to change anything based on a comment from Uncle Al. He’s not to be taken too seriously.

  7. #7 Neil B ◙
    December 22, 2008

    Sending people to needy countries is better than sending money for a major reason IMHO: the money is often siphoned by kleptocratic bad leaders, military, corrupt officials/ businessmen, criminals and guerrillas (it is too fungible.) But people can focus their activity better to actually do helpful things.

  8. #8 CCPhysicist
    December 23, 2008

    Steve, I know it isn’t easy.

    I also know that there were probably some people in an education ministry in Uganda who earned an EdD in higher ed administration circa the mid-70s because that was the business of a professor I knew “back in the day” when I was on a major committee with him. At that specific time he was most concerned with his former EdD students who had disappeared from the education ministry in Teheran, but he had them everywhere. That approach was very much top down.