The Inefficiency of Volunteering

February 27th, 2014

A few years ago, I had a conversation with an english literature professor, who had signed up for a program where he would build homes for poor people in Africa (I can’t recall which country). I asked him if he had any experience in construction. He said no. Neither did any of the dozen students he was bringing with him. I asked him how much he was paying for this trip. It was somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 (I can’t recall the exact amount). He insisted that the trip also included an excursion to the safari. Of course.

Then I posed the hard question to him. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to just give the $5,000 to someone in that village, who was skilled in construction, and could build it himself. That would no doubt result in better structure, provide employments for the people living there, and eliminate the deadweight losses of flying a gangly liberal arts professor halfway across the world. He became outraged and indignant. How dare I question the abilities of someone who couldn’t hammer a nail being able to build sustainable homes in Africa.

Then I really hit him hard. I said the reason why you are going is not, primarily to help the people but to gratify some internal desire to help others. Those are not always the same thing. If your goal was to help these people, I said, you would mail a check to a reputable charity. Instead, you want to make yourself feel better, by going there, witnessing how horrible these people live, updating your facebook profile picture, then chill at a safari resort and fly back home. He scoffed at me. But on some level, he knew I was right.

Volunteering can be very inefficient. The resources spent on this trip could be used to help many more people.

A recent piece on Medium edifies my sentiments.

In high school, I travelled to Tanzania as part of a school trip. There were 14 white girls, 1 black girl who, to her frustration, was called white by almost everyone we met in Tanzania, and a few teachers/chaperones. $3000 bought us a week at an orphanage, a half built library, and a few pickup soccer games, followed by a week long safari.

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.

The Onion parodied this dynamic, with the awesome headline, “6-Day Visit To Rural African Village Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Picture.”

Calling the experience “completely transformative,” local 22-year-old Angela Fisher told reporters Tuesday that her six-day visit to the rural Malawian village of Neno has completely changed her profile picture on Facebook. “As soon as I walked into that dusty, remote town and the smiling children started coming up to me, I just knew my Facebook profile photo would change forever,” said Fisher, noting that she realized early in her nearly weeklong visit just how narrow and unworldly her previous Facebook profile photos had been. “I don’t think my profile photo will ever be the same, not after the experience of taking such incredible pictures with my arms around those small African children’s shoulders. Honestly, I can’t even imagine going back to my old Facebook photo of my roommate and I at an outdoor concert.” Since returning, Fisher said she has been encouraging every one of her friends to visit Africa, promising that it would change their Facebook profile photos as well.

When celebrities travel abroad to help in these circumstances, they serve a valuable role in drawing attention to the plight of others. But when a bunch of college students, and their erudite professor, do it, it is primarily for self-gratification.