A Lecturer answers The Big Question

Two of my favorites, Chris Blattman and Megan McArdle , recently had a great dialogue on "is aid depressing?" I don't have anything to add--read them! However,  their dialogue does remind me of  The Big Question that I and many others get whenever we give lectures on economic development. Inevitably, after every single lecture I have ever given, the first question is ... What Can I Do to End World Poverty?

How to respond? On one hand, I want to (and usually do) salute the questioner for their willingness to give of themselves for those less fortunate. I admire their idealism and commitment.

On the other hand, I find this question to be unproductive and frustrating. It sounds mean, but the honest response (which I have never given) is, "look, the biggest problem to solve in economic development today is NOT what you can personally do to end poverty."  Poor people do not perceive THEIR biggest problem to be that rich people are agonizing how to help them.

More constructively, I want to say: Don't be in such a hurry. Learn a little bit more about a specific country or culture, a specific sector, the complexities of global poverty and long run economic development. At the very least, make sure you are sound on just plain economics before deciding how you personally can contribute. Be willing to accept that your role will be specialized and small relative to the scope of the problem. Aside from all this, you probably already know better what you can do than I do.

But I do salute you again, and I do believe when there are enough people like you, you will cumulatively make a difference.