This November, I am moving to Uganda to manage AssetMap Uganda, a project in the start-up phase that aims to foster collaboration among NGOs. Last week, someone asked me, “Why are you leaving America behind? Isn’t the nonprofit sector in the U.S. just as much in need of an effort like this?”
The first answer that came to mind was a utilitarian one: We ought to produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The degree of need and the stakes of successful nonprofit collaboration are higher in sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else in the world. Leaving America behind makes a lot of sense within the utilitarian framework.
Here’s the problem: I hate utilitarian ethics. Human beings are more than utility consumers and producers, and our responsibilities to one another cannot be whittled down to simple formulas. A utilitarian worldview leaves little room for the demands that culture, kinship, history, faith, and other aspects of our lived experience place on us.
Outside of a utilitarian approach, I had no idea how to respond to this rather pointed question. Instead, I babbled on about conscience and experience, trying to avoid saying things like:
They need my abilities (No, they don’t)
Nobody else will do it (Yes, they will)
I feel called (Sort of)
The need is so great (Welcome back, utilitarianism)
In retrospect, I didn’t have a good answer. How, then, do I justify leaving the country that I love, the community I hold close, to invest my time and energy in a place that is entirely foreign? It comes down to mutuality and innovation.
The phrase “leaving America behind” assumes that the value of my traveling to Uganda is a one-way street, that the U.S. is losing an asset and Uganda is gaining one. This is not only arrogant but also wrong. Instead, I hope to add-value to Ugandan civil society and, at the same time, be informed and transformed by the ideas and lives of Ugandans. This cross-pollination of cultures and people is crucial for thriving in a globalized world, we must learn from Uganda and they must learn from us.
Innovation often stems from having people with multiple perspectives and skill-sets thinking about the same problem (e.g. when engineers work with anthropologists to design a new product). Imagine if Americans never left the country, never engaged with ideas and institutions around the world, do you think we could stay innovative? Also, if Ugandans are going to find better ways to do things, then it might be useful to have me at the table as yet another perspective thinking about the same problem. In short, AssetMap will not be innovating for Ugandans, we will innovate with them.
When next asked why I am leaving America behind, I will say that I am not, that Uganda is doing America a favor by allowing me to learn from and innovate with them.