Voluntourism

by jkaufman jefftk1 min read17th Dec 20192 comments

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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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