The ongoing tragedy in the aftermath of Typhoon Ondoy has spurred a nationwide push to rebuild and reclaim all that we have collectively lost, and it is nothing short of amazing how quickly people can self-mobilize when a dire enough need arises. Donations in cash and kind are pouring in from all over, and dozens of organizations are fielding volunteers for every aspect of the relief operations. Recently I had a very frank conversation with a friend of mine regarding the latter, during which I explained my rather unpopular stance on the subject. I will attempt to do the same here, although I will warn anyone reading this that some may find it objectionable and/or heartless. Rational thinking often is.
Every day, colleagues of mine volunteer at various centers, helping with the sorting, packing or distribution of relief goods. They spend 4 to 5 hours at a time, on average. Now I believe that this is the wrong thing to do, and here’s why.
At our company, the value of a developer-hour is US$25, which is close to the industry average. What this means, roughly, is that the 4-5 hours that each of my colleagues spend packing or distributing relief goods is worth about US$100-125. The reason why I think it’s the wrong strategy for a developer to be volunteering is not because I think that that US$125 is being wasted; it’s just being grossly under-utilized.
Consider this: a given developer cannot sort relief goods any faster than your average minimum-wage employee. (In some cases, the developer, with his soft, developer hands, might even perform worse than the minimum-wage guy, who likely has more experience with manual labor.) However, since that developer’s time is worth so much more, placing him in that job is a _misallocation of resources_, and is thus wasteful.
But, you cry, the developer wants to help his fellow man!
Yes, and he should. But there are two better ways that I can think of. The first is obvious. Instead of under-utilizing himself at the cost of US$125 per session, the developer should just donate that US$125 to the relief effort. This money can be converted into goods, thus maximizing its benefits. In fact, if the developer is serious about helping, the best thing he can do is to work longer hours at his job every day so he can earn more money to donate to the cause. Or figure out a way to generate extra revenue. (And if you can’t come up with the money fast enough, just take out a loan and then pay it back over time. Seriously.)
The second way is less obvious. If you have a working budget of US$25/hour, you could just hire a whole squad of minimum-wage earners to work on your behalf. They would quite literally be 10x more effective than you would be on your own, and you’re creating more jobs as a result, too.
But, you cry again, it’s different when you’re willing to get your own hands dirty!
That’s needlessly romanticizing things. One of the reasons why people like volunteering instead of giving donations is because there’s a sense of actually accomplishing something. It’s a lot more substantial than, say, writing a check. However, I think that this is ultimately selfish behavior, because it makes you feel good while doing a disservice to the people you are trying to help. Unless you have a unique set of sorting/packing skills, your output will be the same as the minimum-wage volunteer next to you. You could be helping in vastly more significant ways. (Ironically, writing that check is probably one of them.)
But, you cry a third time, if everyone thought that way then no one would volunteer!
I find that about as unlikely as PAG-ASA upgrading its prediction systems. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we lived in a country where everyone was earning above minimum-wage. (Again, a logical impossibility, but thought experiments are strange that way.) What would happen is that the relief operations would be flush with cash because everyone would be donating in an effort to maximize the aid they were extending. The operation heads could then simply hire people to do the work of volunteers. Or, God forbid, fly low-wage workers in from other countries to do the job for us.
The reason that scenario sounds so ridiculous is because it’d never happen. There will always be people who want to volunteer for relief operations, either because they derive pleasure from it or because they are otherwise unable to donate in cash or kind. I’m not saying that people should stop volunteering, all I’m saying is that they need to think long and hard about whether they are helping more that way or not. As heartless as it may sound, the most effective way to help your countrymen just might be to get out of that sorting line and get back to your day-job.
If you are interested in helping out, you may donate directly to the Philippine Red Cross via PhilippineAid.com.