Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 2, on the Difficulty of Doing Development

For most of January, I worked in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Many people have asked me about my reflections on it and how my life changes after it, so I’ve written up my reflections here in Part 1 and this post.

Tech in the World has a stated mission: “to expose top computer science students to underserved needs in developing communities and the various ways technology can be applied to address these global issues.” Certainly there is something more underlying that mission; why expose computer science students to developing nations? So that those students will work there and help make an impact on an area of the world that is impoverished and could greatly improve in quality of life.

So if you want a final assessment on Tech in the World and whether it is achieving this ultimate goal, you will ask the question, “Andrew, how do your future plans change after doing development work in Tanzania?” For some reason, I found this question quite hard to answer the first few times I was asked, but then simplified the question by envisioning two (among many possible) post-graduate futures for myself. The first has me working as a technologist and problem solver in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people I admire and learn from, and solving a problem interesting both technically and in terms of the “business” questions surrounding the value my company can provide, my long-term strategy to achieving my mission, etc. Ideally, I am riding an innovation “wave” in a slow but important industry that is just beginning to accelerate, such as government, education, or energy. Let’s call this future “Comfortable Future.”

The second future has me in Tanzania doing (and rising in) software, global health, investment, or really any type of work that improves the state of human and economic development in the country (see Part 1 for concrete examples of development problems to be solved). I may be working within an institution like Ifakara Health Institute or starting my own, and of course I’ll be living in Tanzania with both my favorite and least favorite aspects of its culture, climate, and daily facts of life (such as electricity outages). Let’s call this future “Uncertain Future.”

Which future looks better as I close my eyes to imagine each? If “Uncertain Future” means graduating and immediately pursuing work akin to my Tech in the World experience prolonged for several years, everything else constant, then I would prefer “Comfortable Future.” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my Tech in the World experience—given the same choice back in the fall with the hindsight I have now, I would certainly still have gone. Rather, I initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of being one of the very few Harvard (math and CS) graduates, technologists, people from the United States, and people from my friend group to dedicate several years of my life struggling to solve problems in Tanzania’s pole pole culture, being almost alone in my decision to go there in the first place. After trying to break down this discomfort in terms of my values of personal growth and world welfare (note how this has evolved from previously named “memorable achievement”), I can imagine changes to the “Uncertain Future” scenario that would make me prefer it over “Comfortable Future.” I think that these changes actually illustrate some of the reasons that many peers and I hesitate about doing development work despite knowing about the significant problems to which they could contribute.

I would prefer “Uncertain Future” over “Comfortable Future”…

1. If I were no longer personally growing in “Comfortable Future.”

For example, if I found that in 20 years, I had learned all I cared to learn about Silicon Valley—developing my software and hardware engineering expertise, having extensive experience leading a company or two in different industries, seeing a wide variety of problems, learning to work with all types of people (within Silicon Valley, that is), and building relationships and community with shakers and movers—then I would prefer the new challenge and growth opportunity offered by “Uncertain Future.” My desire for personal growth is like the American obsession with expansion of the frontier during manifest destiny, always pushing boundaries into the unknown and untested parts of me and improving (aka colonizing) those parts. This scenario is pretty conceivable.

2. If a bunch of people I admired and wanted to learn from decided to start working in “Uncertain Future.”

Even if this happened right after graduation, I think I would go for “Uncertain Future” in a heartbeat. Unfortunately (based on the anecdotal evidence of my friends and network at Harvard and MIT), I see a much higher concentration of people I admire and can learn from following “Comfortable Future” instead of “Uncertain Future.” These “people I admire” include several highly visionary, charismatic or empathic, and/or brilliant friends I have met in college or while working, as well as leaders who inspire the entire communities I come from—Silicon Valley and Harvard. (From Silicon Valley, such leaders include leaders of recent visionary enterprises like Google, Microsoft, Khan Academy, Udacity, Palantir, Dropbox, Asana, Cloudera, OpenGov, as well as Silicon Valley legends like Xerox PARC, investors like Peter Thiel, and innovators like Elon Musk. From Harvard, such leaders mainly include academics like Amartya Sen, Niall Ferguson, Steve Pinker, Doug Melton, Joe Blitzstein, Ed Glaeser, and Paul Farmer.) This higher concentration of people I admire mainly doing work in entrepreneurship, technology, academia, and (to a much lesser extent) finance and consulting doesn’t seem to be spilling over to work in international development, and I sense this is a chicken and egg problem in which the people who I think I could learn from are not in development because they themselves want to be surrounded by people they admire, and of course not many of them are willing to go do work in Tanzania without having their circle of mentors and high-achieving peers around them. There are many exceptions to this generalization: of course many of the leaders I mentioned and my inspirational friends and co-workers do impact world welfare via philanthropy and charity, whether they are my roommate Ben Kuhn (who runs Harvard Effective Altruism), tech giants like Dustin Moskovitz (who started Good Ventures with his wife Cari Tuna), former Bridgewater analysts like Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld (who founded GiveWell), and of course Bill and Melinda Gates through their grant-making foundation. But I can point to fewer people I want to learn from who have actually done development work themselves beyond making or optimizing donations (not to trivialize donations, which are incredibly important), and even fewer who are doing it at the time I graduate. (A few exceptions I know of include Dimagi and some of the leaders at MIT’s D-Lab). If more of these greats were to start doing development work, I would happily join them so that I would be learning from people better than I and personally growing while achieving world welfare. (If you are an effective altruist pointing out that you might have more comparative advantage making lots of money and donating it instead of doing the development work yourself, please see my thoughts on that below [1].)

3. If there were more social and economic support for “Uncertain Future.”

By social and economic support, I mean that I have close friends (and perhaps a significant other) nearby who are positive, curious, and compassionate people; and some source of income that meets a modest standard of living but enables me to freely pursue interests and projects without feeling my agency restricted. I think both of these are quite possible (i.e. I can make new friends, try to convince old friends to join me, and make a reasonable income), but the point I want to make is that when I first pictured working by myself post-graduation, I briefly (and irrationally) pictured the lack of social and economic support I have just talked about (i.e. not having friends and not living with enough money), even though the lack of friends would be solved by Tanzanians’ friendliness and the lower income solved by lower cost of living. I believe many people who have not been to Tanzania will seriously picture a lack of social and economic support when you ask them to imagine doing work there, and this might cause the gut discomfort with “Uncertain Future.”

4. If my comparative advantage were strongly in favor of “Uncertain Future.”

This is where my world welfare value comes in (notice that the first three concerned personal growth). You might think that, on the world welfare criterion, “Uncertain Future” of improving the health of an impoverished nation clearly wins over “Comfortable Future” of solving a problem in the wealthy United States. For me, seeing the developing world completely without sickness is more important to me than seeing everyone in the United States with a proper education. But the other question I must ask myself for the world welfare criterion is about my comparative advantage—i.e. on which problem does my choice to work on it (versus not working on it) make the biggest difference? For a person with a problem solving, getting-things-done, people, and narrowly technical skillset (in data analysis and software engineering), I can see that I still have some comparative advantage in “Comfortable Future” (although I think I would be replaceable in the “Comfortable Future” setting). My comparative advantage in “Uncertain Future” highly depends on the problem I am working on. If I am trying to solve one of Tanzania’s bigger problems in electricity infrastructure or drinkable running water, I lack any technical comparative advantage but could still contribute as a generalist in terms of enterprise strategy, attracting technical talent, or executing on projects. If I were building applications for mobile phones, then I would have technical as well as other comparative advantage. The reason I think “Uncertain Future” is not winning significantly on this criterion is because the problems I would have lots of comparative advantage on in Tanzania (e.g. problems involving data and software) do not impact world welfare much more than similar projects out in Silicon Valley (e.g. I could work on online education here in the United States, with implications for the rest of the world), and the problems that have high welfare impact in Tanzania (such as electricity or water infrastructure) are not ones I have comparative advantage in.

Back to the Question

So how does this answer the original question of how my future plans change after Tech in the World? I think conditions 1-4 will happen at some point in my lifetime, perhaps within the next 25 years, and at that point I will prefer “Uncertain Future” to “Comfortable Future.” Tech in the World has helped me consider the possibility of “Uncertain Future” at all and characterize what is holding me (and I believe, many of my peers) back from doing impactful work in development problems ranging from providing drinkable running water to teaching more effectively in schools.

Because of Tech in the World, I am significantly more likely to do more impactful work in the developing world in the future.

Footnotes

[1] One note on the effective altruist argument that, depending on who you are, your comparative advantage in maximizing world welfare might be to make a lot of money and donate it instead of doing the development work. I used to buy this argument strongly for myself, but being in Tanzania has made me reconsider this (although I can’t generalize to other nations). The claim that I should spend my time making a lot of money and donating it instead of doing development work myself (whether medical work, broader health research, technology development, or education) assumes that my donations cause multiple people to go in my stead, who combined are more effective than I alone would have been. Then (depending on which kind of people I want) I would guess that spending my time increasing the incentives to do development work and breaking down the barriers mentioned in this blog post (e.g. by starting a scalable version of a program like Tech in the World) is a more effective way to cause people with medical, health research, development economics, technological, and pedagogical background to do development work. (This assumes you want to solve problems that need people with these kinds of technical expertise and motivation.) Effective altruists—what do you think about the problem of getting more people into development work?

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Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 1, on Development

Now we’re back in school—what a change of scenery to be submerged in the Boston snow after four weeks in 90-degree Tanzanian weather! It’s helpful to take a step back from the rush of school (yes, including getting used to being surrounded by hundreds of peers) and think about my experience in Tanzania. In this series of blog posts, I’ll talk about the big things I learned, and then (the harder and more interesting question of) what changes in my life and my plans now.

The order of certain technological developments in Tanzania (at least Dar es Salaam) is different than those same developments in the United States. Cell phones are very popular now, and the order of developments in Tanzania has been widespread 3G and cell phones (even though only 20 percent of the country has electricity), then accessible personal computers, then widespread electricity and Ethernet/WiFi. Compare this to the almost opposite order in the United States. It’s interesting to think that many Tanzanians quite likely will never even use personal computers as their main devices for communication and other needs like transferring cash (see M-Pesa), instead defaulting to their phones (as Dave Morin has emphasized before). There are already many entrepreneurs and problem solvers, many of them local Tanzanians at incubators like TANZICT, who are taking this to heart and developing applications for the old Nokia mobile phones (not smartphones). Here is a likely opportunity to influence Tanzania’s technological development in the next 10 years.

Beyond the technological view on development, there is a lot of room to improve the general quality of life. In the next 20 years, it seems certain that Tanzania will need drinkable running water, cheap and well-distributed anti-malarial treatment (especially in rural areas), and a public transit system (since the traffic congestion is terrible enough that it is possible to waste 3 hours to drive 20 km to get to the airport). I am not as certain about the future of other possible improvements to standards that we have in the United States—such as a “modern” education system focused on teaching students how to think instead of the current pattern of taking tools/skills (e.g. Java) from the West and trying to adapt them to the students. Compared with the needs to stay hydrated, stay healthy, and get to places, the need for education is less well-defined; it’s clear that the purposes of the first three are critical to life, but the purpose of education—whether vocational training or cultivation of good citizens—is something that is still not even settled in the United States and thus could lead to a completely different form of “modern” education than the system in the United States today. Even just a hundred years ago, the United States and major European powers all had different purposes for education, which manifested in university systems that looked completely different:

[Speaking about 1890-1940:] Universities had long existed in Europe, where they took several forms: the classical studies of British universities, the scientific training of French grand ecoles, and the graduate and research institutes of Germany. The modern university of the New World, however, was a different creature than its European counterpart, for it served a far broader clientele of students and the state, yet increasingly strove to be a research center. [1]

I am very interested to see how the education system in Tanzania develops just as I am learning that different countries have potential to develop in completely different ways (which relates to cultural differences such as the lack of private space and ownership). Just as Tanzania is skipping personal computers to using mobile phones, and just as Estonia skipped from no internet infrastructure following Soviet collapse to using the internet to vote, do tax returns, and issue prescriptions, I expect the Tanzanian education system to skip to some of the cutting-edge work in education—including the use of online resources like Udacity—by virtue of not having an inertial university and secondary education system. And I’m especially excited about the creative solutions to be devised in Tanzania because it’s pretty clear that the rest of the world hasn’t exactly solved education yet. As my friend Jacob Cole pointed out, creative businesses like Habari Mazao (a website that Tanzanian consumers and farmers can visit to get fair prices for crops), which emerged from the first Tanzania-MIT Tele-Hackathon, would never have been thought of in the United States.

It seems that comparatively studying development, both in the economic and social sense, could be fruitful for shedding light on how to predict the trajectory of a country like Tanzania, which we couldn’t just say is where the United States was in the past, partly because Tanzania is starting from a different place in time and culture, and partly because she is surrounded by modernized countries that have already developed (but not finished) their own solutions to problems like education, energy and the environment, and effective governance. Studying comparative development might help one think about this problem and give useful case studies, but I am afraid that the lack of sufficiently many data points regarding development of different nations would lead to unhelpful generalizations. Who knows? I’ll have to take a look.

Action Items from Part 1, on Development

  • Look into research and classes surrounding economic development at Harvard.

References

  1. The Shaping of Higher Education: The Formative Years in the United States, 1890 to 1940. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz. The Journal of Economic Perspectives , Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1999) , pp. 37-62. Published by: American Economic Association. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2647136.