Captain Phillips and the World

My latest treadmill-movie was Captain Phillips. It’s a great movie, reaching for the pinnacle of movie-making by simultaneously showing you something of the world you might never see otherwise yet keeping you entertained. Richard Phillips is the captain of a container ship going from Oman to Mombasa when it gets hijacked by Somali Pirates. It’s an action-thriller that also teaches you something about world politics. It’s a great movie and I’d highly recommend it.

But I must warn you about the ending. I was ready for a hollywood “he lives happily ever after.” That wasn’t what happened. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t seen the movie, but if you have even an ounce of compassion, you won’t be in a happy place at the end of that movie.

Not being satisfied with merely being sad at the Hamlet-style ending to the movie, I started to think about how it is that we have people so desperate in this world that they resort to this? While I’m not very good at chess, I could see the outcome of this setup from the midway point of the movie. There just weren’t any options that resulted in a good ending. Indeed, the loss of life was pretty much obvious from when the pirates boarded.

Perhaps if we helped the people of Somalia so that they weren’t desperate, then we could avoid this situation in the first place? Think about how much money it must have cost the US military for that engagement. We’re talking about boats, airplanes, and helicopters, and likely hundreds of people. What if we took that money, and put it into aid. How many people could be fed? How many farms could be set up? How many water systems?

This is perhaps my biggest frustration, and the reason that I’m really sad. I have all of this education and technical skills. What can I do with it all to make the world a better place? What can I do that will actually make a difference to the people who are really living on the edge?

The short answer is that unless I go into politics or start my own charity, the best I can do is to keep earning money and putting it into charities. Engineer’s Without Borders is a great organization, but I’ve never figured out what I can do for them that isn’t just fundraising and endless meetings. They do good work, but they aren’t doing engineering.

There are a few options that are similar to the US Peace Corps, including Cuso and Projects Aboard. They both suffer from a few problems:

  1. They're aimed at generalists.

  2. For short periods of time

  3. And you have to pay for the privilege

It's that last part that has me all "wait what?!?" I'm going to give up months if not years of time that I could be earning a considerable salary, and I have to pay extra to do it? That's wrong in several ways. It's one thing if you're taking a lower salary, or even being revenue-neutral, but paying fees for a highly-trained specialist? Not cool.

It really seems like our current model is broken. Our highest skilled people work towards making the lives better for people who already have it pretty good. I’m sure we can do better than this.


  1. The best thing that you can do is to take some continuing studies university courses in economics specifically in world development economics. You'll have a much better understanding of hour you can help, even from here.

    Executive summary is to give to charities that specifically target education of women, and entrepreneurship of women.

  2. There was a recent Freakonomics podcast on a group of economists who were offering their services to charities, free of charge. Want to see how well your new campaign is *really* doing? Ask an economist. Here, take a look (well, a listen) for yourself:


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