Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Don't Volunteer in Haiti?

Last month Catherine Porter wrote an article arguing that people shouldn't do volunteer work in Haiti.  And, in particular, they shouldn't go to help with orphans. I'm always pleased to have good excuses for not doing the altruistic things I wouldn't have done anyway, but I'm not sure I'm convinced by her reasoning here.  Regarding volunteering, the author argues that volunteers take away jobs from Haitians and "children who make and break repeated connections with revolving volunteers are at an 'increased risk of developing disorganized attachments, thus affecting their socio-psychological development and long-term well-being.'" 

Consider the first argument first, that volunteering takes job opportunities from Haitians.  This assumes a lot of things. First, it assumes that the volunteers are doing jobs Haitians are also amply qualified to do. The author admits that, for example, neurosurgeons are an exception, but there may be a lot of volunteer work that is an exception.  She points out that sometimes volunteers do work for which they wouldn't be qualified in , say, Canada. Well, I also find that objectionable, but it doesn't follow that people shouldn't volunteer in Haiti.    but why not simply argue that they should make sure they're volunteering to do things for which there are no or few Haitians qualified or available and for which they are adequately qualified?

But another issue here is that even if there are people in Haiti qualified to do the work, it doesn't follow that one is taking a job from them by volunteering.  If there are no agents who are willing/able to pay Haitians to do the work for which one is volunteering, then one isn't taking a potential job from Haitians. If I go to Haiti to reshingle a building in Haiti because nobody is able to afford to hire Haitians to do the work, then I'm not taking work away from Haitians, I'm just fixing a roof that might have otherwise gone unrepaired.

Finally, this naive advise to avoid volunteering overlooks the fact that volunteer work might contribute infrastructure that could facilitate job opportunities and economic growth. For example, suppose a group goes to Haiti and builds a school or paves a road or puts a well in the ground. Suddenly resources are in place such that teachers might start working, goods might start moving or people could start growing vegetables or using the water for mixing mortar and building homes.

And what of the "orphan tourism". Well, I really don't know enough about psychology and human development to comment authoritatively here.  I'll also acknowledge that it's clearly the case that making efforts to get full time foster parents in place is the most desirable objective.  But I am a little skeptical if the suggestion is that it's better to do nothing at all for abandoned orphans than to help them for only a couple of weeks.

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