Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Should I be a worldchanger?

This Dylan Matthews article has sparked a fun blog debate on how best to save the world:
Trigg makes money just to give it away. His logic is simple: The more he makes, the more good he can do.
He’s figured out just how to take measure of his contribution. His outlet of choice is the Against Malaria Foundation, considered one of the world’s most effective charities. It estimates that a $2,500 donation can save one life. A quantitative analyst at Trigg’s hedge fund can earn well more than $100,000 a year. By giving away half of a high finance salary, Trigg says, he can save many more lives than he could on an academic’s salary.
Chris Blattman has an interesting post on the topic here.  

I have a few thoughts on the issue as well.  First, I think it's worth adding that there is an increasing amount of research that shows that simply transferring cash to the poor is more effective than most aid projects.  If so, there are probably too many people working (like my future self) in the aid and development industry.  This is to say that there are too many non-poor people drawing salaries that could be better used in cash transfers programs for the poor.  Some development work is important and useful (transferring institutional knowledge surely has useful effects), and there will inevitably be problems created by cash transfer programs, but it seems like a dollar spent on a cash transfer is more effective in alleviating poverty than a dollar spent on traditional development project. There are some compelling arguments to suggest that giving money away is more effective in alleviating poverty than working in development.  

Second, and more obviously, it's worth noting that not all aid and development projects are created equally.  Many of us select our field of work because we feel that it is most impactful.  We also believe that we are capable of some unique contribution that will make our efforts at development more worthwhile than the average development worker.  This belief is irrational for most people (myself included), but there will be some people who make an outsized contribution and their career in development does more good than the average career in development work.  

I want to work in development out of a desire to make the world a better place.  Given how competitive the field is, there is probably little difference between me and the next candidate.  I am aware enough of this that it should sap most of the psychic benefit I gain from working in development.  Cognitive dissonance is an amazing thing.  Maybe I will lose most of this cognitive dissonance when I gain more experience.  There certainly seem to be a lot of people who become "disillusioned" with development work.  

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