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Epistemic status: based mostly on intuitions and personal and anecdotal experiences, with a bit of help from the principles of economics. Uncertain and motivated to explore whether an overexploited activity is underexploited regarding doing the most good. About channeling the extended will to volunteer into solving problems effectively.

Last year I did volunteering for three weeks in Arusha, Tanzania. That was before I learned about Money as the Unit of CaringPurchasing Fussies and Utilons SeparatelyEfficient Charity, and the rationalist and Effective Altruism aspirations and movements.

A friend of mine had gone there the previous year and had recommended the experience. He did warn me that some volunteers had left disappointed at how they had got more leisure than impact out of it. Even so, travelling to Africa and Tanzania, alone, getting immersed in the local culture, and learning first-hand about their struggles, was something I wanted to try at least once. The personal experience turned out to be amazing—probably the best I have ever had. When it comes to summer trips, it was, for me, unmatched. It was a very warm and very bright—and quite expensive—fuzzy.

In the mornings, my role there was to teach at a local school. I was usually an assistant to the main, local professor at a class of 30 five or six-year-olds, and sometimes I was the sole teacher of eight 12-year-olds. We had the afternoons free, which we frequently spent by going to an orphanage to play and cheer up the 20 solitary kids that were taken care of by a single nun.

Leaving cynicism aside, playing with the children and providing them with their brightest moments of the day was heart-opening enough that I think almost anyone, effective altruists included, would find the experience inherently valuable. If you add that you can meet great people, discover the realities of an entirely different country in an authentic[1] way, and leave with great peace of mind, it gets you wondering: isn’t there something of great practical importance we can extract from volunteering that can really move the needle on doing the most good, without having to feel a pang of guilt about it?

This is the core hypothesis of Effective Volunteering: volunteering can be as much about you as about helping eradicate tragedies and problems of the world you wish didn’t exist. This contrasts with what has been known as voluntourism, which, in blunt terms, is when: like tourism, you value the experience in itself so much that you are almost grateful that such a place called poverty exists so can have fun visiting it.

A project around Effective Volunteering should aim to investigate this claim and implement the most beneficial policies for doing good through the inevitable power and allure of volunteering, if there are any.

These last four words are the cornerstones that sustain the legitimacy of this investigation: once you choose that there are ways in which volunteering can be good, no evidence you find will change the bottom line. So instead, one must leave from a state of suspicion and uncertainty, where the direction in which each new piece of data will pull you is unpredictable. Be curious and put little resistance into updating in light of new clues.

The validity of the project depends on the algorithm that produces the bottom line of the research. If the world is such that no kind of international volunteering can ever be beneficial, the algorithm will be effective if it outputs that no kind of international volunteering can be beneficial. If the world is such that only a few selected and rigorous volunteering programmes can be beneficial, the algorithm will be effective if it outputs that only these can be beneficial, and contributes towards implementing these and not others.

Intuitions about Effective Volunteering

Nonetheless, I have an intuition (which is the reason behind why I am willing to explore the possibility of Effective Volunteering) that, despite the huge popularity of international volunteering, it is underexploited when it comes to doing the most good. Most volunteer organisations are ineffective, do little or even negative impact, are mostly about voluntourism, and their real aim often is to turn volunteers into donors. Most effective charities, by contrast, are by definition effective regarding the value created from the money donated, but less frequently offer the possibility of volunteering abroad.

This might indeed be because a charity will never be effective through volunteering; that volunteering is inherently ineffective. But if we take humans’ nature for granted, and assume that for many people the experience of volunteering can be invaluable for motives such as building career capital, relationships, personal well-being, and self-care, then I think it is possible that some paths have a greater impact than others; and that some have a net-negative and others have a net-positive impact on the developing country. And, given this, that we can maximise the impact made through volunteering.

Within the Effective Altruism community, I believe it is not as needed that I point out the most common drawbacks of volunteering, although I will still underline some of the main ones below.

1. The power of specilisation

  • Money is the measure of how much society wants something. If a lawyer earns $50 an hour, it is because the market requires a degree of expertise that is not as widely available as the one for flipping burgers, which can get someone to earn $10 an hour. Frequently, salary increases with the skill requirements. If a person has the competitive advantage of being employable for a high-paid job, it means his aptitudes overlap with a specific market demand. He could do lower-paid jobs too, but he would be running against the principles of supply and demand of the market; he would be doing something for which there was ample supply, and not doing something for which there was proven demand.
  • Money—salary—hints at what the market cares about you doing. The market, in other words, wants you to specialise in your highest-paid available jobs, and have less skilled personnel do the lower-paid ones. Working for a single hour, the lawyer could be earning the money to pay for five cooks, and would be much more effective according to the market’s wants than by volunteering to cook for an hour.

2. The fungibility of money

  • Fungibility refers to the ability of an asset—money, in this case—to be interchanged for another of the same type. A dollar bill is indifferent to its history. $1,500 can serve equally to pay a trip and three-week stay in Tanzania as to double a household’s consumption for a year. If what the person really wants is to make the world a better place, there are some investments more effective than others for the same price. (Many other times, the person will want to prioritise self-care over utilons, perhaps in order to be more productive in the future, in which case the better investment might be to book a trip.) For every intention and goal that the person pursues, the effectiveness of each intervention in satisfying that goal per unit of money can be evaluated.

3. The cost of managing volunteers

  • Volunteering isn’t free. It takes staff and resources to recruit, filter, organise and supervise the volunteers. From the above point, this is money that could be used to pay for other cause areas or more cost-effective policies.

4. Artificial jobs, weakening of local markets, and obstacles to resilience and independence

  • International volunteering should always be discouraged if it does harm on the developing country. Oftentimes, voluntourism creates artificial jobs that are not needed, or takes up jobs that could be carried out by locals willing to be hired.
  • If what a school really needs is a teacher, it may be much more effective to fund the hiring of a local teacher, which would additionally contribute to increasing local employment and keeping money moving within the country. If the volunteer acts as an assistant professor, it may be that the school didn’t actually need another teacher, but just welcomed youngsters to play with the kids and help improve the facilities. If what you want is to add glass to the classroom windows, it may be better to hire a specialised professional rather than importing unskilled labour to install windows that will fall as soon as wind blows.
  • A danger with volunteering, as with donations, is that it can promote complacency, teach the locals to beg and rely on foreign aid, and dampen their spirit of entrepreneurship. Sometimes it can finance corruption and bureaucracies too. James Shikwati, a Kenyan libertarian economist, made this point when the interviewer made the sensible suggestion that, if the World Food Program didn't do anything, the people would starve:

I don't think so. In such a case, the Kenyans, for a change, would be forced to initiate trade relations with Uganda or Tanzania, and buy their food there. This type of trade is vital for Africa. It would force us to improve our own infrastructure, while making national borders—drawn by the Europeans by the way—more permeable. It would also force us to establish laws favoring market economy.

5. Be wary of second-order effects; be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing

  • Personal example here. Admittedly, my direct impact as an assistant teacher in Arusha was minimal. I did remove workload from the main teacher, I gave classes to the 12-year-olds when their usual teacher was missing (which somehow happened several times), and I believe I could have offered some improved teaching methods or intuitions if I had stayed for longer.
  • But my greatest satisfaction and certainty came from knowing that, whether or not I had been needed as a teacher, I had made the kids happier while there. Their normal days are gloomy, their teachers do not show the same warmth or attention in the playground, and you have plenty of love to give them. The children do not want you for your possessions; they want you to care about them. The school director told me that the kids, on arriving home, were excited to tell their parents that volunteers had come to school. This warmed my heart, and seemed to make everything worthwhile.
  • Unfortunately, on closer inspection, a serious peril was looming in the horizon, which I would have typically been unable to recognise as I went back to Spain. This is the danger of abandonment. The kids might be happy for some time. But what happens when they realise that the volunteers are leaving after three weeks, never to return again? What is the toll of this parade of volunteers, who provide the kids with a mere hint of what being valued feels like? This effect can be even stronger for the orphaned children.
  • Several more consquences might be unattended to and overlooked as one breaks ties, perhaps permanently, with the volunteering destination.

These appear to be exceedingly adverse arguments against volunteering to even contemplate countering them with volunteering itself. But, to the above-mentioned benefits for the individual volunteer, it can be hypothesised that, although aid can sometimes be deceptive, helping is possible.

I do believe that leaving a market to its own devices, even in developing countries, is often preferable to most other options. By having to optimise for what the consumer wants, the market makes it easy to spot and remove bad and inefficient policies, become a bit less wrong about what works and what doesn’t, and make substantial progress. But, going meta, I do not find convincing the idea that capitalism and libertarianism are the all-purpose solutions that can cure all diseases.

It seems much more plausible and intuitive that, for all its apparent elegance and simplicity, full libertarianism isn’t the piece that fits in all puzzles. In fact, there might be no such once-and-for-all piece, and the best we may have is our capacity to reason about the best strategy for each particular situation.

As aspiring rationslists, we ought to ask: “so you’re telling me you can’t imagine a single situation in which libertarianism would be the wrong approach; not a single problem which libertarianism would fail to solve and another strategy wouldn’t?”. Scott Alexander addressed this when discussing the machinery of freedom (and The Machinery Of Freedom, the book), playing libertarianism against a centralised institution:

Given that the universe is allowed to throw whatever problems it wants at us, and that it has so far gleefully taken advantage of that right to come up with a whole host of very diverse and interesting ones, why is it that none of these problems are best addressed by a centralized entity with a monopoly on force? That seems like a pretty basic structure from a game-theoretic perspective, and you’re telling me it just never works in the real world? Shouldn’t there be at least one or two things where a government, or any form of coercive structure at all, is just the right answer? And can’t we just have a small government that does that?

Imagine you have two regions. One is rich, resourceful, and with plenty of accumulated and constructed knowledge; the other is poor, needy, and with feeble social, political and industrial structures. Information can leak from one to the other, but the imbalance is still huge.

Refraiming the previous question: “so you’re telling me that leaving the developing country on its own is better than sending people from high-income countries to help? That there’s really nothing that an enthusiastic visitor could do to make the lives of the struggling locals a little bit better? That the developing country has to figure all out by itself?”.

During my time at the school in Arusha, I felt there was a 5-year-old, by the name of Johnson, that was quite bright compared to the rest. It disheartens me to predict the lack of opportunities he might have as he grows up; how reality might crush his potential. He will probably never have a tutor or have the chances to exhibit himself and gain self-esteem.

It’s also a source of great frustration to imagine how I could help him, how I could tutor him, if there weren’t so many people that needed help and the world wasn’t such a broken place. This hunch that I could help Johnson, and many others, partly drives my suspicion that there is room for high-value interventions from volunteers.

An open door for further research

It’s not my claim that volunteering is the most effective strategy to do good; far from it. Nevertheless, as long as it provides net-positive value for the host country and it is done effectively, it can be a worthwhile activity given that it is a two-way street that can confer huge positives to the volunteer while directly tackling important problems.

Kirsten defined effective volunteering (although, as I understand it, referring to volunteering within one’s country rather than regarding the substitution of international voluntourism) as “using pre-allocated volunteering time to do as much good as possible, using evidence and reason”.

It can be that, for effective volunteering to work, the selection process for volunteers would need to be much more restrictive. Okay, an MIT professor teaching in Tanzania could make huge differences, but it might be hard to find something that a local couldn’t do which a group of teenage friends inscribed by their wealthy parents could meaningfully offer. Or maybe their enthusiasm could be directed for good, without producing side effects such as a sense of abandonment in kids. This would necessitate careful investigation.

Additionally, the range of locations and of tasks carried out could have to change significantly, as would be expected. The emphasis could shift to non-easily-replaceable jobs in low-income locations where governance was weak, in remote or rural areas, with high rates of mental health issues, or where there was a need for creative solutions and novel perspectives.

All in all, my aim is not necessarily to encourage international volunteering for effective altruists—perhaps it is to discourage ineffective, harmful voluntourism. Rather, to take a scout mindset in investigating the viability of effective volunteering. The falsifiable hypothesis is that we can help, even if we wish that such volunteering wasn’t needed in the first place. Remember: if poverty exists, we want to eradicate it. If mental disorders are prevalent, we aim to replace them with happiness and well-being.

While it is natural to expect humans to pursue the warm fuzziness of volunteering, organisations and communities could exist that took a higher-level view and channelled this enthusiasm into utilons through the most effective interventions. Implementing these interventions and creating such spaces for volunteerism would depend on the outputs of effective research.

  1. ^

    Relative to other ways of exploring Africa, such as going only on a safari, which can compress the image you have of the continent into that of its pure and wild natural landscapes, and leave you as emotionally insensitive to the natives’ pains and hardships as you were before. Being a foreign volunteer, of course, still gives you a skewed view of the circumstances.

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As far as fungibility, I think you partially answered the question by later referring to a "group of teenage friends inscribed by their wealthy parents." Much of the money for these kinds of endeavors comes from funding sources that wouldn't be counterfactually available for charitable work. However, I'd add as someone who grew up in a lower-middle-class subculture where "short term mission trips," often voluntourism, were heavily promoted -- I'd add that the parents of kids who go on short-term trips are often not wealthy by US standards.

If EA has a comparative advantage in this space, it may be in providing pre- and especially post-trip education and guidance. Experiences like you describe help broaden the participant's moral circle, and for some participants open a window of time in which they are more interested in / open to thinking about longer-term ways of generating impact. But participants' parents aren't generally interested in funding that kind of work.

That's a good argument I hadn't considered, about how it opens the window for interest in EA. It would be interesting to know how many came to EA after volunteering abroad.

Also, as you said, many times the money spent on volunteering would have been spent on other leisure activities such as non-volunteering trips. Which means it usually can't be net-negative in terms of the allocation of money; it can still be, however, in terms of the impact it has on the developing country.

Agreed that any program needs to be careful to not be net-negative for the developing country. That is an easier bar to clear than being an effective use of money based on direct benefits alone. There's also the possibility that better programs could benefit the developing country by competing with, and partially displacing, voluntourism programs that are net-negative.

Working for a single hour, the lawyer could be earning the money to pay for five cooks, and would be much more effective according to the market’s wants than by volunteering to cook for an hour.

I'm thinking about this in relation to the skillset that is often desired for volunteer positions. If I merely volunteer to build a house and I have no special skills related to build a house, then it is probably better for me to work for money and then donate that money so that someone else (of equal or greater skill to me in house-building) can build the house.

But in the case of a school and working with children, there often are specific "skills" that the volunteer might have which are very difficult to get in the local labour market. These might be "skills" like speaking English at a native-level, or being friendly and playful and fun with kids. If I work for money and donate money, it is likely that nobody in the local labour market can fulfill that role. (this is, of course, a very simplistic hypothetical, and we should only take it seriously to the extent that it accurately reflects reality) My experience working in schools outside of the USA is limited, but from what I've been able to observe underfunded educational institutions who make use of foreigners often do so specifically for roles in which the skills (such as English-language ability), or ability to introduce different cultural concepts) are specialized, and rare in the local labour market.

Very much agree. I want to emphasise again that the fact that a skill is lacking in a region (native-level English proficiency, love and attention towards the children) doesn't mean that the net impact will be positive; I mentioned the sense of abandonment once volunteers leave and the possibility of overreliance on foreign aid, and surely there are several other hidden side effects. But it hints that there is real value that can be added by non-locals, and that the challenge then is to maximise it and minimise the counterforces.

There's something else I haven't discussed in this post. It can be that, once you are in the location 24x7 for 3 weeks, and your job is to teach in the mornings and you have the afternoons free, it can make sense to build houses or put up windows in your free time. Especially because the vast majority of times the reason why football pitches aren't created or the facilities aren't improved is because the people managing the funds aren't interested in it or don't take a wider view despite the clear benefits of the action. In my case for example, the school director preferred us to give them the money directly (which they were planning to use to buy phones or laptops for the teachers) rather than us adding the windows (which could prevent the kids from catching frequent colds).

Volunteers in this case clearly appear net-positive: they invest time or money to provide value in ways the natives with power for decision and action wouldn't be able to recognise. So that's good. Even better perhaps would be if the volunteers identified a need (e.g. to add windows in classrooms), paid a local professional to do so competently, and the volunteers instead used their time to provide their non-replaceable skills by playing with the kids, giving classes or lectures, applying this outside view to spot opportunities for intervention…

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