Someone recently asked me what I thought of the idea of using extra vacation days for volunteering, from an effective altruism perspective. Here's what I wrote to them:

In the effective altruism community people tend to be relatively down on this approach. It's relatively common for, say, a church group to raise funds to fly a bunch of people to a poor country for a week or two where they do unskilled manual labor (painting orphanages, picking up trash, building housing). A typical effective altruist response would be something like:

Poor countries are not lacking in workers!

The money spent on flying you there would easily have funded several times as much work as you were able to do, and from much more experienced people! Usually it makes more sense to use your job to make things better (through donations or directly valuable work) and use your vacation to make yourself happy.

The idea is, if you're just optimizing for helping others this doesn't make sense.

There are two cases where I see this as more compelling, though:

  • When you're using skills that are undersupplied where you're going to. Things like doctors traveling to work at clinics, structural engineers reviewing building plans, or programmers teaching people to code. The main downside is that this can be similar to regular work, and so not be much of a vacation! And most people's skills aren't a good fit for this.

  • When you mostly want to take a vacation but would enjoy helping some along the way. If you compare voluntourism to regular tourism it looks decent!

So, why is this common? Some guesses:

  • Traveling together and working hard together is really good for building community. So church groups that organize this kind of trip are likely to be stronger, more stable, and expand more.

  • Not only do these build community, they build committment and motivation. People who've been on these trips are more likely to want to help others go on them, and, I suspect, are more likely to volunteer in ways that make their local community go better.

  • They also build connection. People who help make beds at a clinic for a week might be more hassle than they're worth on average, but if a few of them develop a personal connection to the clinic and donate to it over the years it could easily be worth it for the clinic to try to attract a lot of them.

Possibly these are strong enough considerations that EAs shouldn't be against voluntourism at all, and we should be organizing trips that are clearly ineffective on their face but do make sense once you take into account the effect on community, commitment, and connection?

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Possible interventions are stories.

Stories about how to pick low-hanging fruit are more easily verifiable.*

Stories about how to pick distant fruit are more difficult to verify, and call for a different means of evaluation.**

Stories about how to improve tree growing/orchard cultivation processes take a long time to verify, even if they propose a small change with a tiny cost. These also call for a different means of evaluation - if implemented, feedback is on a different time scale.

* "Just get a ladder."

**If two people get two regular ladders (that are twice as tall as the average member of the group), there's not a lot of waste. A ladder that's ten times as tall could be taller than the tree, and if it doesn't work, or a shorter one would have worked better, that's a lot of waste.

Well said, but there are some things I think must be added. I think it is right to compare voluntourism to regular tourism and to judge it on its goal of increasing "local" cooperation. By your account, voluntourism should have the twin effects of increasing GDP (or the general success and efficient cooperation) of the members of the church group by a few percentage points and increasing the level of donations over many years to the voluntoured location.

When doing the math to calculate the cost-benefit analysis of these voluntourism projects we should actually write off the cost of travel because in our "voluntourism" model, we assume the travel was going to happen anyway. If that's the case, then voluntourism is almost by definition a net-positive. So I agree we shouldn't be too negative about it.

Nonetheless, I don't think we should call voluntourism effective altruism. For something to be called effectively altruistic, we should be forced to take into account the costs of the program, and the cost of a week and a half in Haiti is $2000 per person. If we assume that a person experiences a financial gain of 2% per year because of the increased group cohesion in the States, that person would have to be making 100k per year to recoup the loss compared to inflation. If the person makes more money than that and donates additional gains to the poor of Haiti, then that pays off for both him and the people of Haiti positively.

I think under these assumptions, voluntourism only reaches the threshold of being effective, when very rich people are doing it. When you are giving tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars away per year anyway, voluntouring does not make a big percentage difference to your budget, but will likely help you give to more effective causes.