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.