Doing Good

ACORN Financial Justice Ideas and Issues Personal Writings

New Orleans     There was a filler article in the local paper that one read in some desperation for a touch of news on a Thanksgiving morning. The upshot of the sympathetically written article reprinted from the Washington Post focused on how hard it was to find jobs “doing good” especially for young people committed to “saving the world.” This is so contrary to everything we know about everything that we do that it caught my eye.

The basic proposition in the article was that young Americans were unable to get “good” paying jobs in foreign countries that allowed them to “do good” and pay off the expensive graduate school bills that qualified them for the “good jobs” that they now could not seem to find. Mix this with the tidbit that NGOs seemed to be hiring fewer people around the world. Throw in the factoid that they were getting longer in the tooth and were now 25 or 27 or 28 and their comrades from school were working on Wall Street or firmly set on career paths at high salary multiples and according to the article, we had a problem.

All of this seemed so backwards.

First, there are a huge number of jobs that make a difference. We are hiring people every day, so we know a lot about this.

Secondly, there is really something fundamentally wrong about people believing that they have an entitlement to high pay in foreign countries at a premium above the local pay standards. Such people really need to NOT go anywhere near foreign countries or any non-profits, but make their way to Wall Street or someplace similar where these kinds of individual prerequisites are thought to have merit. There is something fundamentally inequitable about such situations and for the organizations something that is clearly unsustainable, except as an extension of the donor country. This is not to argue that someone should not have a living wage if they happen to be working abroad, but the living wage has to be locally defined, not measured against “home.” Seeing NGO staff living like kings among the people of developing countries is really kind of gross, and its demise is not something we should be mourning.

Thirdly on the good side it really is not the case that NGOs are hiring less people in foreign countries. In fact I think they are hiring more, but they are hiring local people with inherent cultural competency and language skills who can do the job and seize the opportunities on a permanent basis. This is as it should be, rather than being a slap in the face of young Americans. In ACORN’s operations outside of the United States all of our staff now is from the local countries where we work. This is a good thing.

Fourthly, there is something wrong about this whole graduate school scam. Are these international study programs really claiming that there are jobs at the end of the graduation line or simply deeper understandings of the world? Let’s hope the latter, because the former would really be unconscionable. A scam really is a situation where an able hustler meets a willing victim, and this is precisely what happens in such programs. People unsure of how to find a place in the world become convinced that they need to be “more qualified” so that they can make a “contribution” and then, like the article tries to argue, are disappointed to find that the road is still long and hard, and definitely not paved with gold. People need to be honest with themselves. They go to school to find their place in the world and figure out what to do — not because they really believe a job is waiting for them. The schools ought to be honest as well. If they were really about “doing good” then they would price the product to the downstream use, not to upstream demand. This is all just sad. There are a million good ways to prepare oneself, even to make a contribution to brothers and sisters around the world, but one needs skills and the ability to make things happen and those can be well honed here, though that may not seem as adventuresome and exotic.

My advice to these existentially challenged young folks is that it might be worth focusing a lot more on doing right than doing good. There’s less money in it, but it will also get you in less debt, so there’s still a way to find some balance.

NGO Global Network