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Article:
  Geeking in the Third World
Subject:   I have mixed feelings on this.....
Date:   2003-05-15 13:08:12
From:   anonymous2
While I applaud the concept of getting I.T. people out to developing nations to help build the infrastructure - something doesn't sit with me quite right. For one thing, I guess it seems like Geekcorps is providing a lot of free labor to companies that will (or hope to!) eventually make large profits on the results. Since they're saying 90% of their funding comes from international development funds provided by the U.S. - doesn't that really amount to the United States paying for I.T. staff to work for private businesses in other countries?


I, myself, had some initial interest in volunteering for a project like this, but to put it bluntly, I'm not quite sure there's anything in it for me. The pay is lousy (expected with a volunteer organization, of course, but still worth mentioning to point out that salary certainly is no "plus" to this type of assignment). The work seems to be going to companies that really should be trying to hire people from overseas, instead of "leeching" off of volunteers. The countries the work is being done in aren't ones most people I know would put on a list of "places they'd really like to visit, sometime", either.

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Showing messages 1 through 4 of 4.

  • One geek's experience
    2003-05-16 08:56:26  anonymous2 [View]


    I've spent months as a child of medical volunteers in Ethiopia and Haiti and wanted to give other geeks a little insight into what it's like to be in these kinds of places. Geeks might feel especially anxious about a massive change of scenery. I want to argue that in some ways, geeks are the best cultural ambassadors we have. Read on.

    I consider myself a pretty typical geek: studious my whole life, had few friends, greatly appreciate my alone time when I can get it, lack of social sophistication, lack of desire to become socially sophisticated.

    I was 18 in my last trip to Haiti, so you might keep in mind that my sense of self was still quite green. At first, there was a sense of complete shock at how different people's lives are from those I knew growing up in the U.S. It was like going to another planet. This was both exciting and overwhelming for the first few days. As a geek, I think I was less prepared than others for the powerful effect another cultural mindset can have. My shields were not at 100%, let's say.

    As an example, at first it was very hard for me to be the target of panhandling from children: children without shoes asking you for your shoes, your watch, your shirt, any change you can spare. I came to eventually see myself as an actor acting out the part of an elite individual saying "no" to almost all of them, but it took a while to overcome the resentment I felt for being put into this position whether I liked it or not. I eventually learned to make it a kind of game where I would try to divert the flow of events by making them laugh at something funny I did, or I would ask them if I could join in on their soccer game with a tennis ball, and then it would turn into great fun. I could go on about how incredibly good-natured some of these super-skinny kids with ragged clothes were. The ones who couldn't be bothered to talk about something besides handouts were likely to leave after a few minutes of my attempts at diversion. Those that stuck around were more likely to follow me back to the house where we were staying to get some small food item or toy. Even simple things like yarn were considered very cool at times. Or they would get a taste of American candy or somesuch.

    There was a two week period where I felt a sense of depression because it seemed completely arbitrary that I got to sit in an air-conditioned room in a house, eating and drinking good food whenever I wanted, while countless numbers of people just as deserving as me were going hungry and yet somehow managed to get up every and make the best of it. It probably didn't help that we were there to help at a hospital, where I got to see very sick people struggling to live. The worst were the small children in the burn ward who were often there because illness is sometimes treated with superstitious practices of throwing children into fires, perhaps to exorcise demons.

    OK, I think I described my depression pretty well in that last paragraph, but I don't want to overpower my comments with negativity. So I'll move onto what was so great about what I did and why I think every person in the U.S., especially geeks, should try going to a developing country, preferable before they get too old and set in their ways.

    It was an experience that has absolutely changed my life. Perhaps it was because I was a geek, but I found myself particularly affected by my exposure to different cultures. This is both good and bad: if you learn how to let it affect you positively, it's good. If you get overwhelmed and depressed from it, it's bad at least in the short term. But in either case, you're living a new experience and life seems fresh and vibrant, like you're a child learning everything for the first time again. Geeks are, I believe, especially "good" at empathy, which is the essential ingredient to building bridges across cultures. Ideally, geeks also need something like a mentor so that their idealism and empathy aren't used against them. So teaming up with other geeks with more experience is probably a really good idea.

    Here are the positive things my visits to Haiti and Ethiopia have meant to me: I'll never take all of the luxuries I have here in the US for granted again (I'm sill very interested in low-tech living). I'll never take some of our incredibly strong and vibrant democratic instituions for granted. I'll never believe some of the bizarre rhetoric that comes out of US politician's mouths about how poor people and countries are there because they don't apply themselves enough. This is easy to say if you isolated yourself from poverty your whole life, as most U.S. politicians have. Go to a poor country, and you'll see how hard people there work for a couple dollars a day or even the chance to have a job.

    If you want to view "reality" as it is for most people on earth, you absolutely must leave the U.S. and learn about human cultures elsewhere. It will make you stronger, more compassionate, and more able to see things from multiple perspectives.

  • I have mixed feelings on this.....
    2003-05-15 19:17:02  anonymous2 [View]

    "I guess it seems like Geekcorps is providing a lot of free labor to companies that will (or hope to!) eventually make large profits on the results." That is exactly the point. They are getting IT companys on their feet, so that money will roll in. '...teach a man to fish...' and all that...
    "The work seems to be going to companies that really should be trying to hire people from overseas, instead of "leeching" off of volunteers." Read the article. The point is that the companies shouldnt need to go overseas to get programmers, they should get local workers. Then you need teachers/volunteers...
    "The countries the work is being done in aren't ones most people I know would put on a list of "places they'd really like to visit, sometime", either." Then dont volunteer, work for Microsoft, get rich and go to Majorca on holiday with your friends, or something like that.
  • I have mixed feelings on this.....
    2003-05-15 17:20:31  anonymous2 [View]

    You say: "doesn't that really amount to the United States paying for I.T. staff to work for private businesses in other countries?" Yes, that's right. And that's terrific. You've got to remember the scale of dollars in these countries. These are not profits that would be more than a rounding error to even small US companies in many case -- not "large profits." But what's wonderful about this approach rather than the "handout" style of a lot of charity, is that it means that the money you spend is an investment. And after a while, you don't have to keep making it. It's like volunteer capital, in a way. Start a business ecology, and you improve the company by helping the people to help themselves.

    FWIW, this is the approach taken by a lot of forward thinking charities. It was originally pioneered by the Grameen Bank in India, where they provide "microfinance" loans of $50 to start small businesses (where a business might be as small as owning a goat that provides milk). But even folks like the (lately much maligned) Nature Conservancy do this. Rather than telling folks in Oceania how bad for the coral reefs it is to fish with dynamite, they help them set up sustainable fishery businesses.
  • I have mixed feelings on this.....
    2003-05-15 13:47:17  anonymous2 [View]

    Amazing! You completely missed the point of the entire project. You would only sign up for this sort of thing if you wanted to volunteer your services to help the people in these developing nations. So it's not "still worth mentioning to point out that salary certainly is no plus" and that most people you know wouldn't put these places on the top of there "places they'd really like to visit, sometime" list. And "leeching" off volunteers? Isn't that non-sensical considering you specifically do *volunteer* work when you don't expect to get anything back for it. Get your head out of your ass!