The good, the bad, and the morally ambiguous

A well-known cruise line is marketing cruises to well-intentioned and well-heeled Americans as “social impact travel”, coordinating volunteer opportunities in the ports of call they visit. But is it the best use of your charitable time and money?

As an enthusiast of world travel, I support any opportunity for cross-cultural interaction and it is vitally important to be exposed to need in this world, but might not the money for a three-day service experience at a school be better spent hiring a full time teacher or purchasing needed text-books for the students?Couldn’t most of the volunteer labor provided by these Western tourists be hired out to local residents for a lower cost, all the while pumping much needed income directly to local families?  Enabling locals to provide for themselves rather than passively wait for the next shift of philanthro-tourists to do for them.

It is important to support those less fortunate than ourselves, and many Americans are looking for ways to pass this value down to the next generation. Just as we encourage our children to assume responsibility for themselves, we must be watchful that we are not complicit in encouraging dependence on charity for survival.

In his book Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton sets forth his Oath for Compassionate Service:

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served

Before signing on for any short-term volunteer opportunity ask yourself if the need is a crisis or if it is chronic.  If a crisis, move forward as quickly as possible to help.  If the need is chronic, thoughtfully consider whether the program is the best use of your time and treasure.

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