I am in the midst of a career change, and that means I've sought the advice of many people in the last year. My most trusted mentor recommended I spend some time abroad volunteering for aid organizations. Clearly this is where my passion lies. By spending time on the ground, I could learn about how aid works in poor countries, and what type of aid is truly effective. I could advocate from a place of experience, even expertise. It sounds like an important and worthwhile use of my time.
And then I think about the cost.
Plane tickets, appropriate clothing, medicines and inoculations, ground transport, food, housing - thousands of dollars for my travel and basic needs. Then there are my lost wages. A meaningful trip would last at least 30 days, probably longer. Thousands of dollars.
And then I think about the true cost. The opportunity cost.
The opportunity cost of my travel - the thousands spent and the thousands given up in lost wages - the opportunity cost is lives saved. I know enough to know that poor countries do not need free, unskilled labor. I would be there for my own knowledge, nothing more. There is little work I could do on the ground to save and improve lives. What they need is money. And rather than spend my money to gain first-hand knowledge of the problem, I could spend my money to solve the problem. I could trust the published research of experts in the field and direct my resources to those groups doing the best possible work.
Leila de Bruyne, founder of Flying Kites, blogged about "Voluntourism" in the Huffington Post. She reflects on her summer as a volunteer in a Kenyan orphanage:
"I spent a lot of time that year wondering if I had unintentionally exploited the children I'd traveled so far to meet. Did I help the little ones learn the days of the week and the older kids practice their written composition? Yes. Had my trip contributed in any significant way to a more just, safe life for them? No. I was a 19-year-old, providing unskilled labor, to deeply traumatized children, for a very short of amount of time. The price of my plane ticket would have been better spent on the salary of Kenyan teacher, a source of continuity for children who deserve it the most."
I recommend reading her blog in it's entirety. Flying Kites offers a different kind of volunteer experience for people interested in helping orphaned children in Kenya - and it involves a lot of fundraising.