Monday, November 12, 2012

Getting your hands dirty

I was talking to a friend about ways to help the world, and he said something that surprised me: “I sometimes feel guilty about doing little more than donating money to charities without actually getting my hands dirty.”

Actually, I don't think he should feel guilty at all.

If I moved to a poor country to do good deeds, pretty much anything I would do there would be better done by a local person. I would need to learn the local language(s), learn how to function in a new culture, and learn skills that would be useful there.

If you're a nurse, and you think Africa needs more nurses, the answer is not to go to Africa and work as a nurse. Nurses in Kenya earn around $3,000 a year. If you're an American nurse earning $65,000 a year, you could fund thirteen Kenyan nurses and still keep above the US median income. Plus those nurses would be familiar with local culture and language rather than being known as “that nice foreigner who speaks such terrible Swahili.”

The idea that you should help in person is perpetuated by programs like the Peace Corps. (I came within an inch of going to Kazakhstan for two years with them, and in retrospect I think I did a lot more good by staying home and earning money to give.) I do think Peace Corps and similar programs have a positive impact, but it's mostly in the form of cultural exchange and understanding rather than actual development work.

Now, things are different if you have very specific skills. If you're an expert in, say, microfinance or running small rural health clinics, you might be very valuable working in the field. But the rest of us can probably help more by staying home and doing what we do best.  Most jobs will provide us with enough money to live comfortably and still fund good work elsewhere.

Of course, there's value to cultural exchange and hands-on experience, too. Are we doomed to be armchair philanthropists who are clueless about the real needs of people we're trying to help? Hardly. More on that next time.


  1. The value of being there lies not so much in what you give, but what you get. What you can't get from giving money is knowledge, first hand, directly observed knowledge, not mediated by others. This knowledge from lived experience may change how you give, make you a wiser, more effective giver.


  2. What about a community where you do know the native language and culture -- such as your local food bank or soup kitchen?

  3. I think local volunteering may well be satisfying, but probably not that effective in terms of things you could do with your time. I'm a terrible carpenter, and I know I've been pretty useless at the Habitat for Humanity builds I've attended. It might have been preferable for everyone if I had instead paid an unemployed carpenter to do the same work better and quicker. But part of the point of volunteering is to get out and do something you don't normally do, so people are willing to spend a Saturday doing something they're bad at rather than spending it at the office earning money. Some of it depends on what else you would be doing with that Saturday - if you were actually going to be working earning money to donate (which hardly anyone would), it's different than if you were going to spend the day watching TV.

    1. Thanks for the reply. It sounds like every minute spent volunteering is a wasted opportunity to earn money. Can you give some examples in which volunteering is the preferable alternative, if ever?

    2. You could look at any minute doing anything that doesn't help others as wasted. But you have to take care of yourself, too, or you won't be able to keep going.

      I think volunteering can be good if:
      - It's not time you would be using to earn money. Maybe you're out of work, or maybe you already have a full time job and don't have the energy/motivation to take a second job, but you do have the energy to volunteer some hours here and there.
      - It teaches you things that make you more effective in the other help you're giving. I have yet to hear of a concrete example of this happening, but it seems possible.
      - It keeps you motivated. Maybe it's hard to get excited about helping people you don't see every day, and helping people who resemble them in some way makes you want to help more.