Teach for the World? No.

Like many people who work in international development, I am grateful for the way that Nicholas Kristof brings attention to global inequalities. His columns are an important tool to get people thinking about international development. But you can’t get it right every time, and his recent column on a “Teach for the World” program is a big loser.

In the column, Kristof commits several of the classic bad development blunders. He suggests a program based on the needs of the donor, not the recipient. He offers a program that you wouldn’t want in your own country. And he duplicates an existing program – the Peace Corps.

I really don’t see how the proposed Teach for the World program would differ from Peace Corps. Peace Corps already places a substantial number of education volunteers. Most other types of volunteers also teach, as their secondary projects. Why is Kristof suggesting a teach program and not an expansion of the Peace Corps education component? My best guess is he wants it to be less selective. I don’t think I need to explain here why that’s a bad idea.

Next, consider how you would feel if a young Pakistani or Ethiopian with only a college or high school education – and no teaching background – showed up as a teacher at your local high school for a year. They wouldn’t speak much English, but they’d be very excited to learn more. They’d teach rugby and badminton to the students, or poetry declamation. Would you welcome that? Would you feel like it improved education at your school? Or would you feel like you were educating foreigners at your own expense.

Lastly, Kristof’s entire column couches the program in terms of the benefit to Americans. In reading it, I am force to conclude that either: 1) he assumes these young people will be inherently useful simply because they are American or 2) the rest of the world exists only to help Americans take a detour before the real world and/or become less provincial. Either of those assumptions is pretty ugly. Together, they are horrifying.

I shouldn’t have to write this down, but being American doesn’t make you smart or useful. You are not somehow valuable to the developing world on your own merits. You need to have some kind of relevant skill. And the developing world has specific needs that have to be addressed through programs that are designed to meet those needs, not just any random aid we want to send.


(Image: flickr user symmetry mind.)