Why I Chose Development

When I tell people I’m studying development at grad school, their eyes glaze over.  What does this mean?

Are they confused as to whether I mean business development as in getting new clients?  Or as in employee training?  Do they only understand what I mean if I say “international development” instead?

Do they know what the field is, but assume that it’s just for pot-smoking Peace Corps losers who want to go help the dark-skinned starving people who have AIDS?

Or do they REALLY know what the field is, and associate development with World Bank and IMF policies which were attacked for being neo-colonialist and usurious toward developing nations?

Those are the broad generalizations and stereotypes.

And what of me?  I just got out of the Army.  I went from trying to kill some people to learning how to help others.

To be honest, I applied to the Georgetown Masters of Science in Foreign Service program intending to study foreign policy and try to start a career in national security policy.  I figured I could continue doing what I was doing before, but at a higher policy level.

But all the classes I wanted to take were in development.  Why?  Because that’s where a lot of cool stuff is going on.

Here’s what international development is to me:  billions of people around the world still aren’t healthy, educated, and online.  They have no voice.  They have few rights.

Meanwhile, technologies in health, science, telecommunications and economics fields that study behavior, developing markets, microfinance, etc. are all converging.

Lift people out of poverty and you connect more people together.  You get new ideas, new influences, new businesses, new economic models, new politics.  You get substantially more new opportunities for business and sharing and progress.  You get more representation from around the world.

Have you heard of USAID?  DFID?  UNDP?  Probably not, but these organizations are using a lot of money to fund programs that are geared towards certain aspects of development, including human capacity, governance, gender equality, food and nutrition, etc.

In the past, funding and programs had disastrous results.  Economic theory has been most pushed by areas such as development theory, which has failed time and time again to deliver success to third world nations.  Models have been hyped up and then discarded as they’ve led to countless failures.  But all that work has enabled us to figure out the different elements of what goes into human organization:  politics, individual rational and irrational decision-making, economics, biological nutritional and health and hygiene needs, etc.

Also strongly influencing helping poor people has been foreign policy (why Afghan development and not Darfur?), economic ideology (Keynes vs. Friedman), and misinformation about what has succeeded and what hasn’t (AIDS awareness programs).

And how do you measure the success of programs and donor money?  This requires a study of basic accounting and balance sheets for microenterprise and microfinance, developing proper metrics to properly assess impact of projects (does counting the number of graduates in a country tell you improvement in overall education?), and understanding of how to win a development contract and then plan it through 5 years to completion with a fluctuating budget.

Do you know what that is, all that project design and evaluation stuff?  It’s basically the same thing as learning how to found and run your own startup.

That’s where I’m going with all this.  I want to start new companies.  If all the stuff above didn’t excite you, then I’m not sure what will, because all of what goes into development involves all aspects of the human condition and learning how people make decisions and what people need to be successful.  It involves all the fields where breakout technologies are currently coming from.  It involves being able to meet and interact with and do business with vastly more people.

Development rides a lot off social change, but also technological and economic change.  The implicit understanding, in my opinion, is that development is disruptive.  Sometimes this can be very bad, but hopefully it will be even better.  I seek the new, profitable ideas.

Even the coldest entrepreneur-oriented MBA, who writes development off as poor-paying jobs in bad countries, needs to understand where the market gaps are in order to found a new company and make a lot of money.  One would need to understand social needs, social trends, and the limits of said change within policy and economic environment contexts.  Learning straight-up MBA tools can help you only if it builds upon the potential you have to create your own ideas — that is, business training only helps you monetize pre-existing ideas — it doesn’t actually create new ideas.

That’s enough of my rant on that.  Probably a bit unfair, anyway.  I want to keep this pretty positive and insightful so I guess I’ll close by saying that I have been deeply suspicious of policy and aid but upon learning more about it, I’ve found that there’s just so much meat in the study of it that I’m loving every bit of it.