Perhaps it's the combined Twitter power of the Two Bills (Gates and Easterly), but working in development is hot, and not just for their 5.9 million followers. I'm not kidding: The website GradSchools.com lists 204 master's programs in international development, meant to prepare students for the glamorous life of managing technical assistance to water and sanitation departments in Bangladesh or dealing with the logistics of emergency food programs in Somalia. Devex, the international development portal, boasts a database of 410,000 candidates for employers working in the aid arena to search. And the World Bank's Young Professionals Program, a route to a permanent position at the organization, routinely attracts about 10,000 applicants for about 30 spots each year. In other words, it's a lot harder than getting into Harvard. Kids today -- they just want to save the world.
But there is more than one way to make the planet a better place. Here's another option: Get an MBA and go work for a big, bad multinational company. Consider this: Over the past decade, foreign direct investment in Africa topped foreign aid -- and in 2011 alone, by $7 billion. And unlike food handouts or free latrines, this kind of investment built factories, financed banks, and opened mines and oil fields, creating tens of thousands of jobs and transferring invaluable knowledge to the countries that need it most. That's good news, because it is increasingly clear that new technologies are what's driving improved quality of life in Africa, and new ways of doing business are vital to sustaining economic growth on the continent.
Yet there's still a widespread feeling that multinationals are the rapacious, profit-obsessed spawn of globalization and free markets, running amok across the developing world. Some surely are. But think about how hard U.S. states compete to attract a Toyota factory. Or how happy Britain was when the Indian firm Tata bailed out its ailing steel industry. If multinationals can make that kind of difference in job creation and productivity in the rich world, consider the even greater role they play in poorer countries.
Foreign firms' biggest impact in developing countries may not be the jobs they bring or the money they pay out, significant as those are, but the products they make. Take Vodafone, which provides services from texting to mobile-phone banking in Africa. The company not only employs some 84,000 people worldwide, but it also provides telecom services to 213 million subscribers in developing countries. And mobile-phone service does a lot more than just allow you to gab all day. It gets people money in emergencies, improves the prices farmers and fishermen earn for their goods, and helps people search for jobs. Economists Stefan Klonner and Patrick Nolen estimate that the proliferation of mobile phones has increased employment in rural South Africa by as much as 15 percentage points by allowing people to search for jobs farther afield. In Kenya, Vodafone affiliate M-Pesa's mobile-banking service had 14 million customers in 2011 -- about one-third of the population. That's huge in a country with fewer than 900 bank branches -- or about one branch for every44,000 people.