by David Brooks
Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.
The first virtue they possess is courage, the willingness to go off to a strange place. For example, Blair Miller was a student at the University of Virginia who decided she wanted to teach abroad. She Googled “teach abroad” and found a woman who had been teaching English in a remote town in South Korea and was looking for a replacement.
Miller soon found herself on a plane and eventually at a small airport in southern South Korea. There was no one there to greet her. Eventually, the airport closed and no one came to pick her up. A monk was the only other person around and eventually he, too, left and Miller was alone.
Finally, a van with two men rolled in and scooped her up. After a few months of struggle, she had a fantastic year at a Korean fishing village, the only Westerner for miles and miles. Now she travels around Kenya, Pakistan and India for the Acumen Fund, a sort of venture capital fund that invests in socially productive enterprises, like affordable housing and ambulance services.
The second virtue they develop is deference, the willingness to listen and learn from the moral and intellectual storehouses of the people you are trying to help.
Rye Barcott was a student at the University of North Carolina who spent a summer sharing a 10-by-10 shack in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. One night he awoke with diarrhea and stumbled to the public outhouse. He slid onto the cement floor and vomited as his bare body hit puddles of human waste.
He left his soiled pants outside the hut, but when he went to find them later they were gone. He was directed to another hut where a stick-thin girl, with missing clumps of hair, had the pants, scrubbed and folded, in her lap. Barcott said softly, “I’m grateful,” and asked her why she had cleaned them. “Because I can,” she replied. A week later, she died of AIDS and her body was taken in a wheelbarrow to a communal grave.
Over the next several years, Barcott served as an officer in the Marines in places like Iraq and created an inspiring organization called Carolina for Kibera, which offers health services and serves as a sort of boys and girls club for children in the slum.
The greatest and most essential virtue is thanklessness, the ability to keep serving even when there are no evident rewards — no fame, no admiration, no gratitude.
Stephen Letchford is a doctor working in Kijabe, Kenya. One night, years ago, when he was working at a hospital in Zambia, a man stole a colleague’s computer. Letchford drove the police down the single road leading from town. The police found the man carrying the computer and, in the course of the arrest, shot him in the abdomen.
They put the man in the back of the car and rushed him back to the hospital to save his life. Letchford pressed his wounds to stem the bleeding, using tattered garbage bags as surgical gloves. He had scraped his hands gardening that day and was now covered by the man’s blood.
They saved the thief’s life and discovered he was infected with H.I.V. For several days, Letchford and his family were not sure whether he had been infected by the man who robbed them. Their faith was tested. (They later learned that he was not infected.) When the man recovered, he showed no remorse, no gratitude; he just folded in on himself, cold and uncommunicative.
This final virtue is what makes service in the developing world not just an adventure, a spiritual experience or a cinematic moment. It represents a noncontingent commitment to a specific place and purpose.
As you talk to people involved in the foreign aid business — on the giving and the receiving ends — you are struck by how much disillusionment there is.
Very few nongovernmental organizations or multilateral efforts do good, many Kenyans say. They come and go, spending largely on themselves, creating dependency not growth. The government-to-government aid workers spend time at summit meetings negotiating protocols with each other.
But in odd places, away from the fashionableness, one does find people willing to embrace the perspectives and do the jobs the locals define — in businesses, where Westerners are providing advice about boring things like accounting; in hospitals where doctors, among many aggravations, try to listen to the symptoms the patients describe.
Susan Albright, a nurse working with disabled children in Kijabe, says, “Everything I’ve ever learned I put to use here.” Her husband, Leland Albright, a prominent neurosurgeon, says simply, “This is where God wants us to be.”