I remember the first time I seriously considered becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was sitting at my desk, absolutely miserable, when I received a Facebook message from my old high school buddy, Chris, a PCV in Ecuador at the time. I decided to check it out for myself at peacecorps.gov and was immediately enthralled with the idea.
I had strived my entire life to put myself into the position I was in, working as a consultant in the big city of Chicago. I was just out of college and only three months into my job, but my thoughts were already straying toward the idea of leaving the corporate world behind forever. I wanted to experience something different. I wanted to help people, and I felt compelled because to be in a position to do so. I wanted to do something that I loved, and just as importantly, that I believed in. Peace Corps would give me the opportunity to do all of these things. Finally, after about a year and a bit of a winding road, I found myself out from behind my desk and bound for Uganda.
Despite the 27 month stint I had committed to, I still got a lot of questions from people about what I wanted to do after Peace Corps. I knew there was plenty of time to consider my options, but I told most people that I would probably end up returning to school for a master’s in some form international development or economic policy and then try for the State Department. Here I am now, though, more than a year removed from my courageous escape from corporate America, and I am set on getting an MBA and rejoining the business world (after I finish my service here, of course). What’s more, I am sure this is what I want. Absolutely positive. If you don’t believe me, consider the fact that I studied my ass off for the GMAT (just finished Thursday!), and this has got to be something that no human being would put themselves through unless they were convinced that they wanted to go to business school.
I know what this looks like. You must be thinking to yourself that old Dave sold out. The truth is, I still believe in all of those things that made me want to leave my desk job. I still believe in doing what you love and believe in and I still think that people who are lucky enough to be in a position to help others should do so, I just see the methods a bit differently now.
When I look around me, I see thousands of NGOs in Uganda dumping millions of dollars in the country. The intentions are almost always good, but as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
There are countless examples that I could point to in Uganda alone to emphasize some of the failures of gifted aid, but I will just use one here. The clean-cook stove was developed to replace the more traditional three-stone cooking fire (literally just three stones that hold pots slightly elevated over burning firewood). Clean-cook stoves burn a fraction of the wood that three-stone fires do reducing deforestation and the price of fuel, they cook things faster, and they minimize the smoke and ash that young girls and women are subjected to inhale three times per day. Countless NGOs have installed these stoves in homes all over Uganda, but I have yet to see one being used in my year in country. At my first site in, while I was still just a bush baby, I proposed the idea of installing these stoves. I figured the people as well as the park we neighbored would greatly benefit. The people were ecstatic about the idea. Everyone wanted a stove. I went to the first house to have one installed, and was shown a great place for the stove. It was so great, in fact, that there was already a clean-cook stove installed, tucked neatly behind the three-stone fire the woman was making lunch on. The next three houses were the same thing. All the members of the group had clean-cook stoves that they didn’t use, and every single one of them, without a trace of irony, wanted me to install another one for them. I still think that the clean-cook stove is a fantastic idea, but the way in which it has been implemented to this point has utterly failed.
Unfortunately, this is not a unique example. You see things like it all the time, and it used to give me a sense of hopelessness, but now I can see that changes are coming. There are actually some great things that are starting to happen in the developing world. I am seeing ideas that are lifting people, slowly by slowly, out of poverty, but perhaps surprisingly to some, they are mostly coming out of the private, for-profit, sector. Products and services such as micro-loans, mobile phones, and commoditized solar energy have already changed the face of my village. These ideas work not just because they are good for the people who consume them, but because it is in the best interest of the people who produce them to make sure the consumers are well-informed of the benefits and uses of their products.
Even my own project, Ave Maria Bead Co. has benefited greatly from using the models of the private sector. Tying the earnings of the group to direct sales and profits ensures that they stay motivated and focused on quality assurance, while allowing profits to be made by the retailers and distributors we sell to has helped us grow larger in a few short months than I thought we ever could. Ave Maria will also soon switch from cash-based transactions to mobile phone banking, another private sector idea. Within the matter of minutes that it takes to sign up, all 41 members of the group will have their own savings accounts, something few have had access to and even fewer have an understanding of its benefits. Only one of the 41 members has previous experience with banking (Sylvia’s husband has an account).
In my opinion, private business, not aid and government, is the best tool for fixing some of the pressing issues of the world. This is why I decided to return to business and get my MBA. Business school, I hope, will allow me to be a part of these solutions and be surrounded by a culture that thrives on innovation. The same ideas about making the world a better place that motivated me to leave corporate America do still exist, I am just going about realizing them a little differently now.