I was talking to a friend about ways to help the world, and he said something that surprised me: “I sometimes feel guilty about doing little more than donating money to charities without actually getting my hands dirty.”
Actually, I don't think he should feel guilty at all.
If I moved to a poor country to do good deeds, pretty much anything I would do there would be better done by a local person. I would need to learn the local language(s), learn how to function in a new culture, and learn skills that would be useful there.
If you're a nurse, and you think Africa needs more nurses, the answer is not to go to Africa and work as a nurse. Nurses in Kenya earn around $3,000 a year. If you're an American nurse earning $65,000 a year, you could fund thirteen Kenyan nurses and still keep above the US median income. Plus those nurses would be familiar with local culture and language rather than being known as “that nice foreigner who speaks such terrible Swahili.”
The idea that you should help in person is perpetuated by programs like the Peace Corps. (I came within an inch of going to Kazakhstan for two years with them, and in retrospect I think I did a lot more good by staying home and earning money to give.) I do think Peace Corps and similar programs have a positive impact, but it's mostly in the form of cultural exchange and understanding rather than actual development work.
Now, things are different if you have very specific skills. If you're an expert in, say, microfinance or running small rural health clinics, you might be very valuable working in the field. But the rest of us can probably help more by staying home and doing what we do best. Most jobs will provide us with enough money to live comfortably and still fund good work elsewhere.
Of course, there's value to cultural exchange and hands-on experience, too. Are we doomed to be armchair philanthropists who are clueless about the real needs of people we're trying to help? Hardly. More on that next time.