By Adam Lerner
In the United States, most universities give their students one week in March to do what they need – or want – without having to worry about going to class. They call this week off “spring break”, and the standard way to spend it is by hopping on a plane to some place with warm beaches and a lower legal drinking age – one such popular destination is Cancún, Mexico.
Recently, though, an increasing number of students have deviated from this standard and decided to take what are often advertised as “alternative spring breaks”. Alternative spring breaks also consist in hopping on a plane to a sunny locale, but instead of laying on the beach sipping drinks, students are put to work aiding impoverished communities, often by building houses, running medical clinics, or teaching English. These international service trips, as they’re also called, travel to countries like Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Ghana – places that really need help.
Like many of my service-minded peers, I also thought I would do something morally good this spring break. But instead of going on an international service trip, I am sitting at home enjoying the company of my family and a few good books. How in the world is this morally good?
Taking the money I earned working over winter break, and the money I received for working as a teaching fellow this semester, I am donating $1414 – the average cost for one student at my university to go on an international service trip during spring break – and giving it directly to VillageReach, a highly efficient charity which works to improve infrastructure that would otherwise keep lifesaving vaccines from those in rural Africa who need them. By staying home, I am actually doing good abroad.
How much good? According to GiveWell, a non-profit committed to evaluating charities not just on their financials but on their human impact, my donation could be used by an immunization-focused organization like VillageReach to save at least one and up to seven lives.
VillageReach is GiveWell’s top-rated international charity, meaning that it strongly satisfies all four of their evaluative criteria: demonstrated impact, cost-effectiveness, scalability, and transparency. If GiveWell is right, then I am doing the most good I possibly can with the monetary resources I have. Does this mean those participating in international service trips are doing less good?
I’m not in a position to say for sure just how efficient service trips are or are not. But I don’t think anyone is, for that matter.
Service trips are difficult to evaluate, and it’s not just because they tend to be coordinated by small organizations that lack the means to analyze their own impact, but because much of the good service trips claim to engender can’t be counted simply in terms of lives saved. The good they contribute, it is often claimed, is something less tangible. Service trips have the power to shape attitudes towards poverty and suffering, to make their participants into caring citizens of the world in whom the seeds of future service are planted.
This might be true. Without a doubt, most service trip participants return home having acquired both a profound emotional tie to those in extreme poverty and a strong desire to perform more service. But to what end? I think it’s fair to say that most participants channel their newfound motivation into raising money to repeat their trips for a second, third, or even a fourth year. I’ve even heard of graduates going on to create their own annual service trips.
But if a significant reason why service trips exist is to motivate students to perform more service in the future, and the service they end up performing later (say, in the form of more service trips) is itself largely justified by how it will motivate them to perform more service in the future, then it seems we’ve gotten ourselves into a closed circle of justification in terms of motivation that never intersects with the reality of meeting the needs of the world’s extremely poor. Participants just keep getting more and more motivated… to get more and more motivated.
Fortunately, I think the above picture is incomplete. First of all, some service trip participants do go on to devote their entire lives to service working for efficient charitable organizations. Assuming they would not have gone this route without having first gone on a service trip, service trips can be said to be worth the money for these people and those they will help in the future. Nevertheless, I suspect people like this make up only a small minority of those who go on service trips.
Secondly, even if a significant portion of service trips’ justification does amount to mere self-perpetuation, this doesn’t mean they do no good at all. In fact, I think they do quite a bit of it. Talk to anyone who has gone on a service trip. They would be glad to recount to you the joy they saw in the faces of those they helped – those for whom they built a bedroom, pulled a tooth, or taught an English sentence. Many are with little doubt doing real, tangible good – certainly more than the student who blows $1000 on airfare to Cancún and drinks on the beach.
But if it’s true that giving to a highly efficient charity does more good (and perhaps significantly more good) than going on an international service trip, wouldn’t one expect those who have been so motivated by their experiences to eventually come to the point where they just want to do as much good as they can with the resources they have? If so, one would expect them to give the money they would spend on a service trip directly to charity.
Is this psychologically realistic? After all, it’s not like all service trip participants have $1400 sitting around ready to go – they work really hard all year long trying to raise money through concerts, bake sales, and other events to reduce their costs. And they do a remarkable job – many end up paying just a few hundred dollars to cover the airplane tickets that take them outside the country.
But couldn’t these fundraising efforts themselves be reoriented directly towards charity? I think they could, but let’s be charitable to service trips and say that as a matter of psychological fact, they couldn’t. Let’s say that students are only motivated to raise so much money because in the end they know they will see the fruits of their labor firsthand. In this case, we arrive at a dilemma. We could encourage students to give $300 (the price many service trip participants end up paying out of pocket) directly to charity, or we could continue to encourage them to raise $1400 each to go on a service trip. The question becomes: is more good achieved when $1400 is spent inefficiently or $300 efficiently?
$300 could easily save one life if given to the correct charity. I simply don’t know how many lives per participant service trips save, if any. I am sure it depends on the service trip. If for every $1400 spent sending one college student on a service trip, at least one life were saved, then going on that trip could in fact be one way to maximize moral good. But accepting this last part requires assuming once again that it is psychologically implausible to expect a college student to be able to raise $1400 and just give it straight to an efficient charity.
I hope that in making my donation I have shown this last assumption to be false. I think many college students like myself are already motivated to help the world’s desperately poor and that this comprises a non-negligible part of what motivates them in raising all of the money they do for their service trips. For this reason, if what we care about above all is doing good, then we should give to charities that are proven to successfully help those they aim to help, do so in a cost-effective manner, have potential for productive growth, and make their records available for those who ask to see them. Some service trips may satisfy these criteria, but no one knows. Until they do, I feel better placing my bets elsewhere. After all, this is a matter of life and death.