Teaching Spotlight: How Should and Can We Help the poor? A Course on Global Development & Giving

In the Fall 2019 semester I launched a new undergraduate course titled Global Development & Giving (PUP 4931), which was supported by FSU’s Council of Research and Creativity. I have been visiting poor countries, predominantly in South East Asia, once or twice annually since 2014. These countries include Cambodia, Myanmar, Tibet (China), and, foremost, Laos. More and more I felt the urge to better understand Laotian culture and poverty from an academic point of view, but also the urge to share my relative prosperity.

An inspiration came to me from non-profits such as “Room to Read” and “Pencils of Promise,” who support poor communities around the world with, among other things, school and library buildings, teacher training, and the publication of children’s books in local languages (I highly recommend the founders’ stories told in John Wood’s “Creating room to read” 2013, and Adam Braun’s “The promise of a pencil” 2015). I packed my suitcases with school materials and warm clothing for the kids, and, after some planning, I left for my own first mission. My strategy: on a given day, make surprise visits to approximately four rural primary schools to distribute the supplies. I typically approach schools in a “hit-and-run” fashion, unannounced, so I can move to the next school after about one hour. But it’s not rare that the teachers invite me to stay for coffee or lunch, so I was able to build more lasting bonds with some of the primary schools and allowed me to gain deeper insights about how things work, especially in Laos.

It is true! Their excitement about pencils, paper, children’s books, and other basics is overwhelming. They are clearly eager to learn and these materials do not fit into family budgets.

Students in action (Laos). Picture taken by the author.

I made two big decisions as a result of my experiences in South East Asia. First, I knew that I wanted to increase the efficiency of my hit-and-runs so that I could reach schools in the most remote communities, which are most severely under-equipped. Second, I decided to create the Global Development & Giving course so that I could help others better understand the academic literature on global development and the practical side of charity. The goal of the course is to help participants gain a deeper understanding of the problems in the developing world and become more confident that progress can be made, even if slowly, and learn about effective tools and strategies they can utilize in order to improve the lives of the less fortunate in spite of their distant location.

The class starts from a bird’s-eye view about the economic and health situation in poor countries, and compares developing to developed countries and the United States in particular (through Deaton’s book “The great escape” 2013). Thereafter, we discuss the UN Millennium Development Goals and the progress of the currently active UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as studies on “flourishing” (e.g., the World Happiness Reports). The remainder of the course becomes more practical. We immerse ourselves in the Effective Altruism movement (Singer’s “The most good you can do,” 2015, and MacAskill’s “Doing good better,” 2016) which provides us with moral philosophical reasons regarding why we should give to others and managerial strategies of how to give to the world’s poorest. The readings challenge students to think about which kind of donations are most effective in improving the lives of those in the developing world? A crucial effort in this regard is made for us by the meta-charity Give Well, to name a prominent example, which recommends a few selected charities or writes reports about promising non-profits after scrutinizing research on their effectiveness using methods not unlike the traditional accounting methods applied to for-profit organizations. We then explore individual incentive-based approaches to global development, especially the behavioral and experimental social science movement that has turned the development field upside down in the past two decades (Banerjee and Duflo’s “Poor economics” 2011). Finally, we discuss various case studies such as Room to Read, the microfinance facilitator Kiva, and the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation. Then, we allocate some money to charities after group deliberation and decisions based on our newly gained knowledge about effective giving.

Tibetan herders: Facing climate change and resettlement. Photo taken by author.

I plan to offer the course for the third time in Spring 2021. The course is evolving, and this time I want to include a class project where, from the start of the semester, we get involved in the fundraising of a rural primary school building and/or library in Laos. We can build on the experiences of “Room to Read” and “Pencils of Promise” and develop our own strategies as well. Another option is to offer online teaching to poor schools, English and others subjects in demand. A final option is to conduct our own experiments, one of my methods of expertise, with the aim to discover efficient ways to get more of the kids to attend school and better learning strategies that improve the skills of all kids, as opposed to only the best ones.

Dr. Jens Großer is an associate professor in the department of political science. You can learn more about his work here.

Readings Mentioned in the Post:

  1. Banerjee, Abhijit V., and Esther Duflo. 2011. “Poor economics: A radical rethinking of the way to fight global poverty.” PublicAffairs Publishing.
  2. Braun, Adam. 2015. “The promise of a pencil: How an ordinary person can create extraordinary change.” Scribner.
  3. Deaton, Angus. 2013. “The great escape: Health, wealth, and the origins of inequality.” Princeton University Press.
  4. MacAskill, William. 2016. “Doing good better: How effective altruism can help you help others, do work that matters, and make smarter choices about giving back.” Avery Publishing.
  5. Singer, Peter. 2015. “The most good you can do: How effective altruism is changing ideas about living ethically.” Yale University Press.
  6. Wood, John. 2013. “Creating room to read: A story of hope in the battle for global literacy.” Viking, published by Penguin Group.

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