Career Question: What do I study in undergrad?

Dear Alanna:

I would really like to go to University next year but am still unable to decide what to study.  All i know is that i am interested in social problems such as poverty, poor education and inequality to name a few.  I am not sure what degree would suit me or give me the skills to make positive changes that actually work and would have a lasting impact.

This is probably the most common question I get, and the easiest to answer. There is no undergraduate degree that will give you the skills you need to achieve lasting change in the world. Choose a degree that sounds fascinating to you, and has classes that sound like you’d love to take them. Once you have an undergrad degree, then you can look at jobs that bring change in the world and probably a graduate degree. In the beginning, though, just start with an undergrad education you can love.

Where I’ve been

Observant readers will have noticed I have not updated this blog since February. I have every intention of starting again soon. Really soon. In the meantime, I’ve started writing in other places.

I am now writing regularly for UN Dispatch on global health issues – see me eviscerate Russian HIV policy right over here. I will also be contributing to Humanosphere. My first piece, of which I am rather proud, is an op-ed explaining exactly why we should allow as many Syrian refugees as possible into the US. I’m also still active on twitter, and on Instagram.

That’s half my big news. Here’s the other half: I left my job with USAID and I am out in the world as an independent consultant. This is mostly great. I can write anything I want to without worrying about clearances, I can choose work I care about, and I can live in Cairo, the big mango, the mother of the world.

However. I have to market myself and go around talking people into hiring me. This is horrific. But if you need someone to troubleshoot your underperforming project, force your logframes to make sense, or write a proposal, keep me in mind.

Globalization and its discontents

A friend of mine in Tajikistan used to consistently buy prepackaged foods for her children. Anything specifically marketed to kids caught her attention. She’d buy it – all of it, and feed it to them, even when it was more expensive than other options. So, functionally, she was raising her kids on a diet of junk food.

I do my best to let people be people. They’re allowed to make the choices they need to make, and my friends don’t need me to be hanging over them judging their choices. So for a long time I said nothing. Eventually, though, I broke down and asked. Why? Why the junk food, when fresh food was cheaper?
And she said (of course) that the food made for children was better for children. Because it was made for children. I responded with an impassioned rant about marketing and corporations and selling to people. I was very into it. I was, I felt, very convincing.
My friend (of course), didn’t believe a word of it. Alanna, she said. They make these products for children. Sure, they make money. But they feed children.
I realized she came from a village in a country where people feel responsibility to their community. She knew there are terrible people in the world – and in her own government – but she thought of them as isolated bad guys. She couldn’t conceptualize that a company made of ordinary decent people would target products to children that were bad for the kids. It just didn’t fit in her world view.
Honestly, I wish it didn’t fit into mine.

Worries for the new year

Technically, they’re not 2015-specific worries, or even solely worries so much as some ideas. But it’s 2015 now, and this is what I’ve been thinking about lately:

I have so many feelings about the article on Aleppo’s Civil Defense Force. Tragedy brings out the good and true in some people. I’ve seen it happen. Not everyone – it turns plenty of us (I include myself there) mean and selfish. But some people turn into something like saints. This article about Aleppo’s Civil Defense Force reminded me, vividly of that truth. I wonder, though – what happens to these boys if they do survive the war? Syria is burning in part because there isn’t enough meaningful work for young people.

And, of course, the wreck that is Aleppo. The bazaar in Aleppo – long gone now – was one of the most beautiful, magical places I’ve ever been. I am reminded also of the old story about Damascus. When the prophet Mohammad arrived at the gates of Damascus, he hesitated to cross, as you should only enter paradise once. Side note: I was very pleased to see that medium uses fact checkers.

I think development needs to take the changing ideas of family, masculinity, and femininity seriously. We tend to ignore the squishy stuff – just disregard the the emotional impacts of the changes brought by development, and they matter. These two articles both touch on the idea – Modernity and Matrifocality, and The Rise of the Non-Working Man.  See also the foreman in this NASA article, devastated that his grand project was for nothing. He got paid well to do this. His regret is that his work won’t be used.

I read an article years and years ago that suggested we look at terrorism as a kind of horrible performance art. That it was no longer a strategy or tactic used as a means to an end. Instead, it’s simply and solely about the splashy act and its impact on observers. This view struck me as profoundly, intuitively true. It’s an awful way to look at terrorism, because it gives us no clear idea of how to stop it. But it at least stops us from expensive, painful efforts that only harm ourselves. It seems to me this perspective on terrorism is getting more mainstream, as evidenced by this recent article in The Atlantic.

Things I’ve Been Reading: Miami, Britain, Ebola

Photo of a sandy footprint

1. Miami, and delusion. Miami is sinking under water, and everyone pretends it’s not happening. My parents lived in Miami a few years back, and I noticed that myself. everyone went around living in the city – buying real estate, developing land, renovating houses on the beach – and nobody seemed to notice the city will be underwater very, very soon. And not in a mortgage sense. It’s a strange lesson in the human capacity to cling to the narrative that’s comfortable, not the narrative that contains any truth. The storm sewers of Miami Beach now flow backward and no one considers what that means.

2. Ebola. I made this argument in a fragmented way on twitter – Ebola could be a game changer. Alex Evans makes it better, on Global Dashboard. Ebola is a disease so terrifying and infectious that it makes the need for decent health systems compelling. The question is – will anyone actually be compelled?

3. Two incisive and very different takes on sexism from the New Yorker. First, an article about the British scholar Mary Beard, and how being a well-paid cisgender white person make misogyny slightly easier to handle. That sounds like a snarky description, but I believe Dr. Beard would agree with it. Next, the toxic stew of xenophobia and sexism that apparently led the British police to believe that eleven-year-olds can consent to sex. And, as I consider it, another example of the human need for comfortable narratives.

World Humanitarian Day

We are at a time of change and fear for the human race and all life on our planet. Climate change, globalization and its reversal, losses of biodiversity and the depletion of fossil fuels is making this world a very different place than it was even thirty years ago. We don’t know what our future will look like, and we don’t know if it will be pretty.

If there was ever a time when we all need help, it is now. If there ever was a time when we all need to help, it is now.

Today is International Humanitarian Day. It marks the anniversary of the Canal hotel bombing in Baghdad, and it honors the memories of all those who died trying to bring assistance to others and the efforts of those who are doing that work today. UN Diplomat Sergio de Mello died in the Canal hotel bombing. He bled to death, buried in rubble, and as emergency workers tried – and failed – to rescue him, this is what he said “Don’t let them pull out the mission because of this.”

Human beings, every single one of us, have the capacity to do great things. Just like Sergio de Mello, we can be powerfully unselfish and astonishingly brave. Aid workers aren’t superhuman; they’ll tell you that themselves. They’re just regular people doing important and dangerous work as best they can.

Right now, there is important work for all of us. Dangerous work, even. There’s a lot at risk. If we’re going to survive this global transition and create a future that’s healthy for everyone, we all need to be aid workers. We need to look at the world in a spirit of generosity and courage. We need to find the capacity we all hold to change the world for the better. Most of all, we need to stop simply discussing the problems in this world, and start taking action to solve them.

I wrote this post five years ago, for World Humanitarian Day 2009. It’s even more true now. Since I ended that post with a call to action, it’s only fair to suggest some things we can do:

Four ways to become a humanitarian:

1) Learn CPR, and start thinking of yourself as a first responder. That will make you capable of immediate help to someone in need, and it will lead you to look for other ways you can help other people. In the long run, it will shift your whole point of view.

2) Donate to international aid. I suggest MSF or International Medical Corps. (I worked for IMC once. They’re not perfect, but they’re good people.)

3) Find an advocacy organization you believe in, and join. Oxfam might be a good start.

4) Join the bone marrow registry for your country. 

photo credit: wikimedia commons

SWEDOW: Why are we so obsessed with giving away our old stuff?

I’ve always wondered about our obsession with sending old clothes overseas. No matter how many times the idea is debunked by experts and people who rant a lot, the idea doesn’t die. Why? What about giving away our clothes –and other stuff – is so emotionally important to us that we can’t let go of it?

I have come up with two theories.

Theory #1: In small communities, nothing goes to waste. You know who is wealthy and who’s in need. You can give old but still useful things directly to the people who can use them, because you know those people. They are your friends, neighbors, or family. You give a worn baby quilt to a family with new infant and no money for supplies. You give your broken bicycle to your neighbor with a workshop and he makes it into a handcart. It’s easy to identify the people who can use your things, because you know them. When you know names, faces, and histories, you can match your old stuff to the people who need it.

We miss that community, and we want to pretend it still exists. We convince ourselves we know our global neighbors well enough that we can give the personal (and painless) donation of an old pair of shoes instead of the formal (and more expensive) transfer of cash. We don’t want to give up our dream of a small world, so we act like we still live in one.

Theory #2: At some fundamental level, we understand that the American life of work/spend is bad for us. Being a consumer, and only a consumer, feels bad in some way we hardly notice and can’t articulate. Discarding our old stuff – especially when it still seems usable – makes that discomfort almost unbearable. Maybe we shouldn’t have bought that pair of uncomfortable shoes or the phone that went obsolete in two years. Maybe our lives shouldn’t revolve around buying things.

But we can’t, or won’t process that. And there’s no easy way to step off the work-buy-discard hamster wheel. So we send our old phone to Haiti and convince ourselves we’re philanthropists.

photo credit: me