Monday, 14 February 2011

I think a servant of the Enemy would look fairer and feel fouler

The reverse of Frodo's quip often runs through my head when I run into people who tell me of their time volunteering abroad. Scott Gilmore agrees in a delightful rant (HT: @TimHarford):
The fact is I’m not a fan of volunteers going overseas for four reasons.

You get what you pay for. Volunteer staff are never as effective as paid employees. Yes, please, regale me with tales of the group down at the local church who get together every other Sunday to sew dresses for poor African girls. But let me ask you this: If you lived in earthquake country, would you rather your kids went to class in a school built by volunteers, or one built by certified, paid professionals?

Volunteers are actually expensive. Sending a group of bankers and lawyers oversees to help out at an orphanage costs money.
Don’t tell me it’s “about the kids”. I hate that line. Some self-satisfied volunteer comes back from Africa...
NO NO NO NO! It’s about you. It’s about you beginning to realize that at 55 you’ve got precious little to show for your time on the planet except for an ex-wife, a daughter who won’t talk to you, a four-year-old Mercedes, and a membership to the third most exclusive golf and country club in town. So you decide to volunteer in the hopes that you’ll be fulfilled. It’s not about the kids. If it was never about the kids. If you thought for a second it was about the kids you’d man up and mail a $5410 cheque to the orphanage.

Now there is a big caveat to this. If you actually have a unique skill that is actually needed and there is no one there who could deliver it, then yes go. But this caveat is limited to very few folks. Doctors, engineers, and eye surgeons, for example.
Gilmore's right. The first commenter on his post asks for the argument from the other side. I gave my best shot at it when arguing about charity races over at EconLog a while back. If the donor doesn't actually care about doing good but actually cares about the vacation, and wouldn't donate anything if he didn't get to go on the vacation, then the opportunity cost of his activity isn't the opportunity costs of his time plus what it cost him to get out there, turned into the number of local professional builders that could have instead been hired. It's zero. They enjoy a lot of smug for not really doing very much, but that still is hopefully more than zero.

You're doing harm in donating money to help these folks go on overseas holidays relative to what you could be doing by donating to effective charities working in those areas. But if what you're doing is just showing that you're friends with the guy (and you otherwise wouldn't have donated anything), then some small fraction of your donation for his vacation helps that area.

The whole "I'll go overseas to pretend to help people and you'll give money to avoid offending me" drill translates some small fraction of the total cost into benefits for the purported beneficiaries. Gilmore's right that it's not about the kids. The best argument for the whole farce is that a tiny fraction of some large cost might be better than the zero that would otherwise obtain. But the disutility of the smug weighs too heavily for me.

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