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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