Volunteering for a non-EA charity—a write up
This is long, so first paragraph is an abstract. I did a week of volunteering for a non-EA charity, mainly for personal reasons. I was glad I did it as I found it a worthwhile experience and I hope that seeing poverty first hand will further motivate me while earning to give. I also learned a huge amount about the realities of poverty and the very different perspective these people have on the world, so I would massively recommend the experience. I was impressed by the charity, its professional approach and its ability to gauge and deliver good donor experience, while at the same time stay focused on the bigger picture. It was interesting to see this in practice and have a chance to speak in detail with staff, including the guy who started the charity with whom I was impressed. I was disappointed by the standard of my fellow volunteers, many of whom seemed entirely uninterested in altruism and were there to fulfill their own egoist needs. I don’t feel I ever got to the point where I could bring up EA to these volunteers. Overall from my anecdotal experience it seems more promising to pursue nudging the charity towards more effective interventions, rather than to encourage the donors/volunteers towards more effective charities. I will be following up with the charity in this regard and respond in the comments if there are any updates.
I decided to do a week of volunteering for what I guess we would call a ‘standard’ or non-EA charity, that builds houses/schools in townships in South Africa. It was mainly an opportunistic thing that came up rather than a pro-active decision (my brother was asked to go by a friend who couldn’t make it). That said, I did have it in my mind that I wanted a firsthand look at systemic poverty on the order we discuss. This seemed like a good enough fit for me to do it. I’ve come to accept that I am driven by emotion as well as reason, and that to keep myself motivated on the path of earning to give it’s worth visiting these places at least once, if not every few years. I was also interested to see up close how these charities operate. I didn’t want to fundraise for a charity I wasn’t sure I had much faith in, so I saw it entirely as a personal experience and paid for it myself. It was not cheap doing it this way, certainly a lot to spend for a holiday, but the experience I felt would be worth it for me. Since I’m taking it out of my ‘post EA donation’ income, I don’t feel it needs to be compared to the opportunity cost of donating to EA charities.
The flight was through Istanbul rather than London, which was a minor inconvenience but felt right, given the money saved was going to charity. By contrast, the hotel in Cape town was one of the better 4-star hotels I’ve ever stayed in. Right in the centre of town, our room was on the 25th floor and had an amazing view of the Table Mountain. At first this felt inappropriate, but later in the week I was very glad of the home comforts afforded by such a place. In retrospect it was an excellent investment by the charity in donor experience, which was to become the theme of the trip. More than anything, the trip was a masterclass in donor experience, not surprising for a successful charity, but amazing to see.
We arrived at the hotel around 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, after approximately 22 hours of travel. We were told to meet in the lobby at 4pm to get on buses out to the sites. The main goal was to get everyone to the site and introduced to their Foremen, so that people could go straight to work the following morning. We were told to expect 5 days of hard labour, the buses left between 06.30 and 07.00 and you needed a decent breakfast before that as there was no food near the site. Buses departed from the site each day between 17.30 and 18.00. In retrospect, I think this too was part of the donor experience, easier to convince yourself you are saving the world when you are tired and sore.
That first trip to the site was an interesting experience in so many ways. Even before we entered the slum there was a sense of how contrived the situation was; when we turned off the motorway, there was a policeman waiting for our buses, stopping traffic to allow us to proceed. From that point we were escorted from in front and behind by a private security team. My first impressions were actually surprise at how wealthy the place was—it seemed like a cross between a nasty council estate back home and the shanty towns I’d seen on the news. The services like water and electricity were pretty basic, but not non-existent, the smell wasn’t great, but it definitely wasn’t open sewage either. That said, it was still the poorest place I’d ever been and there’s no question it moved me.
As our bus goes by, people stop what they are doing to gaze up at us, and it triggers many different reactions. It is Sunday afternoon, and everyone is out on the streets. The younger kids, still all smiles and naivety (I guess yet to be broken by the harsh realities of their circumstance), wave enthusiastically and some even break in to dance. They know that the white people are coming to help with the school. The older kids are less enthusiastic, not just about our presence it seems, but about life in general. The young adults (and people seem to grow up very quickly in this area) are scornful. Some show us their middle finger or make generally disgruntled and agitated gestures towards us. They seem as angry as I would be about their circumstance and life prospects. Perhaps they see us as self-congratulatory white people who think they are coming to save the slums, but will have no impact on their lives. Whatever the reason, we momentarily become the target of their disdain.
On the bus too, there are differing reactions. The reaction of the experienced volunteers is mixed, but elation is the overall sense they give off as a group. Many of them are on the verge of tears, they are excited and waving fanatically at everyone, spiteful teenagers included. Others seem to wave only at the kids and are a little more measured, still there is no question that this is an annual highlight for them. There is optimism and achievement in their eyes. They’ve made it. Back for another year. Excited to get down to work. For myself, I didn’t expect such jubilant well-wishing from the kids, but I also was not prepared for reactions which were aggressively negative. I tried not to get caught up by the negative reactions, and focused on the little kids. I tried to make sure every optimistic child could see I was waving back, terrified one of them would be offended.
The site was a primary school, where we had agreed to build several classrooms to help ease overcrowding and add a few touches like a playground. Waiting for us there was another surprise—the week is called a blitz because the idea is to get all of these buildings done in a week with a wall of volunteer labour. However, it’s already a full-blown building site. All of the buildings have foundations laid and many are more advanced than that. I learn that the charity has a team of local builders who have been on site for several weeks laying the groundwork. Again, this feels pretty contrived to me. It looks like they have done all the groundwork, allowing us to swoop in to do the most visually productive work and claim all the credit, and this is exactly how it will play out over the week.
Back at the hotel there are drinks and I very luckily get a chance to speak in reasonable detail with the guy who set up the charity. I am impressed. He seems like started off with a lot of naivety but now sees the bigger picture pretty clearly. He gauges my level fairly quickly and is quite open that this week is largely a publicity stunt. It gives the charity profile and also puts pressure on the upper section of the local population to do more for these townships. He will be conducting site visits all week with representatives from government and local corporations to attract donation or changes in government policy. By way of example, he explains how he worked with US legislators for years to allow USAID to donate for building of permanent residences, which hadn’t previously been the case. They were eventually successful, and USAID granted several million to building homes in South African townships. However, at this point the local government stepped in as on an international level they want to be seen as a developing nation and didn’t want to accept international aid of this kind, so they set aside the same amount themselves.
In contrast, the average volunteer was operating on an amazingly low level. They clearly bought the whole experience and felt that they personally, by working hard, were actioning real change and they were chuffed to bits about it. There were of course exceptions to this rule and a decent minority accepted that a big part of why they were there was for their own experience. They also had some understanding that the deeper need and goal was money, but at no point during any of the conversations that I had did anyone get to the point where I felt I could comfortably ask another volunteer about how much good any of this was really doing.
Was reducing classroom sizes really going to make any difference to learning levels? Even if it did, how would that change these children’s life paths? Were they going to have a better chance of going to 3rd level education, and even if they finished that level, how would that effect employment prospects? Was anybody measuring this? The charity was now 16 years old, had there been any studies at all on life outcomes?
Even with my massive ball of skepticism deep inside, I found the work enjoyable. Being used to working in an office, it was a great experience to work on a site. Many of the volunteers have real world construction experience and I was a labourer supplying materials to a team of block layers. It was tiring and engaging without being stressful. In the moment you aren’t worried about where this is all going. The fact is these lads need mortar to build the wall, and the sooner you get it to them the happier they will be. The atmosphere is jovial, and I imagine much more relaxed than a real building site (though not entirely devoid of conflict!), and at the end of the day you can’t help feeling satisfied. If nothing else, it was the best exercise in corporate team building I’ve ever experienced. Every night there are a few, and sometimes many, beers and a nice dinner.
Over the week you come to see that this group, made up of 90 newcomers and 200 returning volunteers is a community. They come together for a week every year to catch up, have fun, and hopefully do some good. There are a couple of morons with Messiahanistic notions, and they are recognized as morons by the group. Most are simply confident they are helping, and just aren’t too engaged in thinking about to what degree they are helping. Rejoining the community, getting a week of good weather and boozing away from normal life is a huge part of the motivation for many to come back, again and again.
I won’t go in to detail happenings of the week, but instead there are a few of points of note that I think are worth highlighting. They are quite separate instances and I’ve listed them chronologically, so it might feel a bit disjointed, but is quite similar to how it felt living them:
The most shocking experience of the whole week was dubbed as the ‘shack tour’. Even the name I found pretty offensive, and gave a sense of gratuitous voyeurism, but it turned out to be unpleasantly apt. A local, and several armed guards, took us for a walk around the township in a group of around 20. This bit was very interesting as you could pick up a lot more than when on the bus. We then stopped at a small house made entirely of corrugated iron. It clearly wasn’t fully waterproof, and in heavy rain I imagine that it gets pretty unpleasant. Still it was fully furnished, with kitchen appliances, a couch, a cabinet with TV and a proudly presented graduation photo. It was a little ramshackle but extremely tidy. There was a middle-aged seeming lady there, with several children milling about.
The set up was a little unpleasant to begin with. Too many of us encouraged by the organizers to crowd in at one time, she was seated on the couch facing us, while we stood over her. Nonetheless, the set up is no excuse for the actions of several of my fellow volunteers. They asked her pointed questions, far beyond any description of rudeness, about her living conditions. Their responses, often not even directed at her but to each other, were typically along the lines of ‘did ya hear that, 10 people sleep in this place, can you believe it!’ and ‘do you see the hole in the roof there, shocking!’. They then asked her if they could take pictures and it was clear to all, the lady included, that they looked for angles that displayed her home in the worst possible light.
It was clear that this was a humiliating experience for her and she was gradually getting quite upset, but everyone seemed oblivious. Even now looking back, I still can’t understand how these people couldn’t see what was happening and the impact they were having. I can only imagine how they would react if someone much wealthier than them entered their home carried on in this manner. Even more baffling is how these people have ended up on this volunteering mission.
Later in the week, we were invited to visit one of the classrooms which was a phenomenal experience. It felt truly enjoyable and untainted by being contrived. The kids were delighted to see us and the teachers beamed with pride, as the kids sang songs and showed us some of the things they were working on. They played with us, took photos on my phone and I showed them pictures of my own little baby. Aside from the large number of children for the size of the classroom, it seemed amazingly similar to what I remember of my school. It was amazing to me that these kids could spend a large part of their lives in an environment so similar to my own at their age, but the rest of the time was spent facing a reality harsher than I will ever be able to imagine.
One of the most annoying experiences was taking part in various construction activities which were clearly unproductive and inefficient, but made for good photo opportunities. In some ways, knowing the work we did was borderline pointless compared with the value add to the charity of helping them raise money, but even still it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s one thing to try to overplay the work done by volunteers, it’s another thing to engage in busy work for a photo op, I felt like Kim Kardashian.
I spoke with a lady who was visiting the site, she worked full time for the charity based in South Africa. She was a specialist in the running of primary schools and pedagogy. We spoke candidly and through her answers on a series of pretty open questions I posed, she seemed to conclude that very little of their work has any real impact on life outcomes. 75% of the kids are facing an adulthood without permanent employment and of the 25%, very few will ever venture in to management or professional positions. It was a strange situation because I hadn’t offered any opinions, so she must have been aware of all of this already, but she actually seemed reasonably disheartened at her own conclusions. We concluded by saying that these kids spend a lot of their happiest times in primary school and providing them with a safe and pleasant environment was worth doing in itself.
One day I was asked to watch a gate to the site during the kids’ lunch break—we needed it open to allow people in and out, but if left unattended the kids would wander on to the site. One thing that really struck me while watching the scene was several old ladies sitting in the shade selling sweets. I thought this was a bit inappropriate as it seemed like several of the children were eating only sweets for lunch, though some seemed to be eating hot meals that came from somewhere else. But worse, when the finished, the kids were just throwing the wrappers on the ground, it seemed to be part of the deal that ladies then had to collect the rubbish. This was frustrating. As life lessons go, this was a pretty shocking example to set for young children. It’s also not a resource issue, just teach the kids to put their wrappers in the bin and discipline those that don’t. Maybe I am missing something here, but given they have some way of keeping the kids quiet in class, it seems they could do something to stop this practice.
I had an interesting experience with one of the local staff. There seemed to be two types of locals on site employed by the charity. There were teams of ‘real’ construction workers, who were competent and productive, and some others who seemed to stand around all day and try to avoid work. I’m not sure where these guys came from but 3 of them were standing beside a water tap chatting when I came up needing to wash a wheel barrow. Together we tried to get the hose to work, but failed, so they resumed idle standing as I filled buckets and rinsed the barrow. When I was finished one of them came up to me and said, ‘I like you’. I thought it was weird but I was polite, ‘thanks, glad to be here’. ‘Give me your sunglasses’. ‘No way man, I need these’. ‘Come on, give me something, I am poor and I like you’.
I found this pretty indicative of a general sense of confusion amongst the locals as to what the hell we were doing there. Partially I think this was because they knew we weren’t really doing that much good, but definitely a big part of it was, from the perspective of their dog-eat-dog world, they couldn’t for the life of them figure out why these white people, who came from the other side of the world, cared about their school children. So, the conclusion they seemed to have reached is, ‘they want us to like them’. I’ve thought about this incident a lot since. It gave me an insight in to how things we take as a given, like altruism and caring for one’s children are perhaps likely a lot less innate and a lot more learned than I previous thought.
My outlook on the world is a product of my happy childhood, caring parents and the freedom and safety that life in a rich democracy provides. People who live in poor and extremely violent situations whose prospects are limited at every turn have a very different outlook, to the point where values that I would have assumed are universal don’t necessarily apply.
Overall it was a great if sometimes trying week, and I would definitely recommend a trip such as this to anyone interested in Effective Altruism (though if you could do one with an EA charity, and in a poorer place that would likely be better). I met some very interesting people and I have a wall of informative experience that I feel is going to take me months to fully digest. I very much hope I get another chance to speak to the guy who runs the charity. The organization itself is extremely impressive at achieving its goals, by catering to the differing needs of their customers. They think long term and are willing to think in terms of corporate strategy. The only thing I think they are missing is proper and systematic assessment of their actual goals. I think this is something the guy is capable of seeing but whether he chooses to see it or not, I’m not sure, but I’ll definitely give it a try. It’s unrealistic to expect them to change everything, especially because so much of their base is around this volunteer building. That said, the central goals of the charity are already quite different to what many of the volunteers believe they are, so I am somewhat hopeful if not optimistic.
In particular, it feels like more could be done in the area of family planning, and that this would likely have a much bigger impact than building classrooms. Overall S.A. has a pretty reasonable 2.3 births per woman, but it seemed anecdotally like there were a lot of kids in each household and that women were giving birth very young age. I’ve found it difficult to find any sourced data on the area in question, but I will try to engage the charity on the topic, and likely argue that investigating a pivot in this direction is worthwhile. More important though is getting them to address the issue of measuring their impact and being willing to use it to make decisions on impact charity, which I will really try to highlight.