Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why Leave America Behind?

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.


Adam said...

Big jump from where you were at a week ago, Dave. Great to see that you've actually sat down and thought this through. And yes, I think you're spot on.

There's a European Politics analogy here that may or may not be interesting to anyone. In the EU, the Council presidency is not a "person" per se but a country that rotates on a 6 month basis. So, for instance, Britain will have the presidency for 6 months, then Slovenia, then Malta, then Poland, and so on.

Some have criticized this system as a source of the "democratic deficit," a much much much talked about "problem" in European academia. These individuals claim that if the EU had an individual at the very top, someone the European people could relate to, who could represent the EU internationally, etc., that citizens across the continent would feel more connected to one another than they do now. Moreover, it would solve hostilities among citizens when countries they do not like have the presidency.

My course provider, Jan Zielonka, disputes this argument. He says that the presidential country system is one of forced mutual learning. The presidential country must send envoys to states they've had little historical engagement with, and must pay attention to all states' (big and small) needs. Similarly, if a country like Cyprus has the presidency, it forces states like Germany and France to forget their "great power" status and work with a country it never had to respect in the past.

I like this argument, and I think it's relatable to your desire to go somewhere far far away, meet new people, and do some good in the process. I genuinely believe that the EU is the most cutting-edge organization in the world, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy studying it. I look for characteristics like this as examples for other organizations to improve their own workings. Mutual learning won't explicitly make an organization--or a state partnership--more efficient, but I believe it makes the parties involved more invested in one another. It's a long term investment.

So while we may not reap the benefits of your trip to Uganda 6 months from now, the more it becomes the norm to do things this "crazy" (as I'm sure some people have told you this trip is), the more we change the cultural mindset that makes people say, "I'd never go to Africa," etc., the closer we get to lifting both continents to places much better than their current ones. Best of luck, Dave.

Dave said...


Thanks for this thoughtful response and for the encouragement. I have never really applied this "mutuality" type of thinking to the interaction of states and state leaders, but it does make a lot of sense. Also, I like the way you phrase it: becoming more invested in one another over the long-term.

I would love to hear more about why you think the EU is one of the most cutting-edge organizations in the world, perhaps your next blog post?