|By Matt Zedler|
It was over 30 C, the sun was burning down on my exposed flesh, and I was sitting in a hole full of muddy water. Another student and I were testing a small-scale hydropower turbine and generator in Sri Lanka, hoping to determine why system conversion efficiency was an abysmally low 15 percent. This summer was my second spent in a “developing” country, and the experience taught me several lessons.
I got into international development while at MIT through Amy Smith’s D-Lab class (SP.721) during my sophomore year. It was something I thought I could feel good about doing, through which I could sidestep the evils of the capitalist rat race and help “save the world.” It sounded so good: simple technologies, like hand-driven water pumps, paper brick presses, and biogas generators, could vastly improve the lives of millions who lack the opulent lifestyle most of us enjoy here in the United States.
In the words of a conservative talk-show host, I became a “liberal do-gooder,” selflessly foregoing the comforts of home to travel to “exotic” countries, naively expecting to change the world for the better by doing so.
Of course, no one told me that many of those poor souls who I felt needed my help would already have devised their own solutions to fulfill their basic needs, wouldn’t speak English, and would generally regard me as an over-eager tourist rather than as a savior come to rescue them from the ravages of their traditional lifestyle.
My summers in Lesotho and Sri Lanka slowly showed me that development is something that takes time and cultural investment. I found that my own development in terms of self-awareness, global awareness, and skills as an engineer far exceeded the benefit to anyone I met in the developing countries. I wasn’t able to accomplish nearly as much world salvation as I had hoped, though I gained a greater appreciation for life in the US and found clearer perspectives on several issues.
Some of the luster has worn from my “do-gooder” attitude, and I have even acquired a few conservative ideas. Money does drive things, and even (especially) in a developing country, one must consider the economic feasibility of an idea. Private sector investment and small-scale entrepreneurship have a large if not paramount role in stimulating economic and social development. I now believe that individual dependence on government welfare must decrease for a country to prosper, and capitalist business sense can be used to improve NGO efficiency.
Organizations such as the Gates Charitable Trust are rooted in capitalist business successes, and they can have a substantial impact on solving large-scale, world-changing problems. Without private sector profits, I wouldn’t have even been able to afford visits to developing countries, as the majority of grants used for such projects are either sponsored by the private sector, or funded by hard-working taxpayers through government programs.
The purpose of this article is not to dissuade those interested in international development from pursuing that passion. Instead, I hope to impart a kernel of wisdom into some other young “do-gooder,” highlighting the importance of looking at a larger picture of how to approach development. Changing the world demands that one develop a sense of global understanding and self-awareness. International development work is an exciting, often frustrating, sometimes rewarding way to start on that path. As with most things, there are multiple ways to make a difference, and one must make sure that one’s approach to the problem is the most effective.
Many fall prey to the myth that international development is an exhausting, fruitless career path that leaves one destitute, disillusioned and far from one’s home country, but the reality can be quite different. There are four billion people who earn less than $1,500 annually, while only 100 million earn more than $20,000 annually. College graduates often want to go into the seemingly more lucrative world of high-end technology and consultancy, marketing their skills to an already saturated market. Instead, simple, cheap solutions marketed to the people at the bottom of the financial pyramid could prove even more profitable, as the number who could purchase such products is significantly greater.
There are several other examples of how existing economic and management skills can be applied to developing countries’ markets, in a win-win situation for both those who see the opportunities and those living in the developing countries. While a career in international development may not be for everyone, the impact of living in an increasingly connected world ensures that it makes sense to understand the world that exists outside of the “bubble” of MIT.
Matt Zedler is a member of the class of 2007.