Last week I was part of a Clemson University career advice panel discussion for scientists and engineers looking to work in the Frontiers of Global Health in the developing world. One question stood out: How are you able to work with poor people in developing countries and then just fly home to America and become part of our materialistic and self-obsessed society? Don’t you feel bad wanting to buy an iPad when you just left people who are denied so much?
Several people tried to respond with questions of this sort.
Is it because you think the world ought to be fair to everyone and it is not – does it disturb you to straddle these two worlds? I personally would rather know both the richest and the poorest people in the world so that I can make sense of the times, but perhaps my life journey is driven more by questions like this than most people.
Or is it because much of the work that people try in poor countries is experimental – interventions that would never fly in our home town? Poverty creates a population more willing to try things, but it doesn’t make it any more ethical.
Or is it because those of us who get paid to work in the developing world as technocrats ought to feel guilty for earning a living doing this?
Should aid workers make economic sacrifices to work in the developing world? A quick poll of the panel showed that none of us felt that we had actually sacrificed, but rather we were doing what we loved.
My point was that the world isn’t fair, and we need to be aware. Maybe that guilt we feel upon returning home will change things for the better.
So what is the value of aid work?
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, we were told from the start that we would help America grow as much as the countries to which we were being sent. And as a worker straddling two worlds, the same is true. Many of the people I meet have as much of an effect on me as I might have on them. And by understanding each other, by inspiring each other to be excellent, we might change society for the better.
The society that needs changing might be where we are going, or it might be where we came from. Both worlds are fair game for disruptive change.
So back to the original question: Should aid work make you feel guilty?
I can answer it both ways. Yes – because the world is unfair and economically unequal, and No – because aid work that truly makes this world better is something we should feel good about.