A slightly cruel but mostly brilliant teaching strategy on global poverty

I posed to the room: “Suppose you were walking by a pond on the way to school,” I asked them (even though there are not very many ponds in San Francisco), “and you saw a child drowning in the pond.  You have your cell phone in your pocket, and you cannot leave it on the bank (let’s say there are sketchy people nearby who you believe would steal it).  Would you dive in the water, ruining your cell phone in order to save the child?”  There were about 30 people in the room, mostly students ranging from freshmen to grad students, and a handful of USF faculty and staff.  Every hand went up in the room indicating they would eagerly lay waste to the circuits in their cell phone to save the drowning child.

But they didn’t know that this was a set-up.

I continued on with my talk about 10 different things an ordinary college student could do to make a positive impact on reducing global poverty.  But I focused on one.  “Did you know that by transferring cash to the ultra-poor through an organization like GiveDirectly, a rigorous randomized controlled trial indicates you can reduce by 42% the number of days children go without food?”  I presented some other impressive statistics from the  Hoshofer-Shapiro GiveDirectly study.

“So if everybody in this room were to donate $50, we could significantly reduce hunger among a desperately poor Ugandan child, perhaps even saving a life.”   A mild sense of unease began to envelope the room.  I continued, “In fact a donor has pledged $50 to GiveDirectly for every one of you who is willing to part with your cell phone for two weeks.”   The sense of unease steadily grew in both breadth and intensity.  Within moments the engaged smiles degenerated into expressions of profound anxiety.  They reminded me of a face I once saw on a student who had forgotten to study for a game theory midterm that I was beginning to pass out in class.

that is Bruce Wydick ay USF, one of my favorite academics. Read the full story.

28 thoughts on “A slightly cruel but mostly brilliant teaching strategy on global poverty

  1. The two situations are not comparable. There is no alternative to losing your cell phone is situation 1. In situation 2, one could easily donate $50 instead of not having a cell phone for 2 weeks. In fact, I would think the WTP for having a cell phone is a lot higher than $50. This example is not a very good one for understanding “global poverty”.