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.