Charitable Computer Nerds Drawn to Africa

When an average person is charitably inclined, the objects of that charitable impulse are most likely to be local.  The local opera company gets a big check.  Hurricane victims in a far-away corner of the nation, though their need is larger, get a smaller check.  Unfortunates in distant countries get almost nothing.  Government policies seem to reflect the will of the average person.  Lots of money is spent on domestic programs, helping the people we know and see every day; comparatively little is spent on foreign aid.

For American computer nerds, this relationship is reversed.  Bill Gates gets rich.  His thoughts turn to malaria, AIDS, and going over to Africa to try to hold back the tide of these diseases.  The Google founders are talking about their foundation concentrating on Africa and they just bought a personal Boeing 767 to make it easy to get back and forth.  A visit to reveals that when techie movers and shakers gather, e.g., at Poptech, they talk about how they are going to fix Africa.  Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, decided that his next act would be the $100 laptop for children in Third World countries.

How to explain this difference?  Perhaps the average person has a lot of emotional ties and uses these to guide his or her giving.  Whereas the computer nerd has mostly been isolated from other humans in his or her community.  When the time to do something charitable, he does a Web search for “unfortunate losers” and finds out that there are lots more in Africa than in Seattle or the Bay Area.  If you have no personal connections and the people to be helped are mostly just statistics, it is just as satisfying to help people far away as geographically close.  When the people far away are in worse shape than the people nearby, it becomes more satisfying to help them.

[The folks who’ve actually spent time in Africa feel a lot less sorry for Africans.  One fellow at the Hacker’s Conference spent nearly a year on a road trip through Africa with  He said “In a lot of the villages where we stayed, folks only have to work about two months per year to pay for all of their food and shelter.  They’re so much happier than Americans.”  My friend who work in public health and have spent years in Tanzania don’t shed tears for the locals, either.  And there is some evidence that Africans may not be as bad off economically as the dry statistics suggest. notes that “an estimated 100 million of [Africa’s] 906 million people” have mobile phones.]

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