Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Other people's problems are so easy to solve!

As I worked through the undergraduate program that I knew would not define my career, I could not understand how we humans could invent airplanes and computers and more but could not get toilets and drinking water to the hundreds of millions in India.  There had to be a better way, I was confident.

I went to graduate school.  I walked about the VKC library.  And then the stacks at Doheny.  I went to classes.  I talked with people from different countries. I read academic journals and magazines that I never knew existed.  Later that summer I went to Venezuela as a part of a student research group.

Within a year of coming to America, I understood that we humans are indeed very good at inventing airplanes and computers and more, but we have not been able to provide toilets and drinking water not only to the hundreds of millions in India but also to the hundreds of millions all over the world.  The problems here on earth were way too complex.

Even as my delusions were getting treated by books and articles and real world experiences, I applied for a prestigious professional opportunity at the Mecca of development thinking--the World Bank.  After surviving successive rounds of elimination, I flew across the country on a cold February week for the interview.  I did not even have to wait for the official notification that came a few days later that I did not make it.  Yet, I was not disappointed but was relieved.  I felt like I had dodged a bullet.  I suffered no more illusions that one man or one agency could do it.  Development had to come from within.

Now, older and wiser, and on the other side from the students, I look at the twenty-year olds who seem so confident that they can change the world for the better.  It must be seductive, intoxicating, to think and believe that they can make it happen in the far corners of the world.

In an essay with an arresting title--"The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems"--the author notes:
There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”
Indeed.  It is an industry out there.

The author notes two important problems with this "reductive seduction":
First, it’s dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve mistakenly diagnosed as easily solvable. There is real fallout when well-intentioned people attempt to solve problems without acknowledging the underlying complexity.
Second, the reductive seduction of other people’s problems is dangerous for the people whose problems you’ve avoided. While thousands of the country’s best and brightest flock to far-flung places to ease unfamiliar suffering and tackle foreign dysfunction, we’ve got plenty of domestic need.
An investment banker quitting a Wall Street job in order to "solve" a problem in Kenya, conveniently overlooks the problems right in Manhattan where, perhaps, the problem can really be "solved."

The author ends the essay with this suggestion:
Resist the reductive seduction of other people’s problems and, instead, fall in love with the longer-term prospect of staying home and facing systemic complexity head on. Or go if you must, but stay long enough, listen hard enough so that “other people” become real people. But, be warned, they may not seem so easy to “save.”
The complexity is far more than what NASA had to deal with in sending men to the moon and bringing them back.  Which is why toilets and drinking water continue to be a problem for hundreds of millions in India and elsewhere, even thirty years after I graduated from the engineering college.

The only good thing is that I no longer suffer from delusions.

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