March 1, 2010

Maximizing Relief Efforts Through Investment in Service

Print More

The outpouring of support in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake serves as a testament to our drive to help those in need. Yet, identifying the most effective and holistic way to “do good” can be challenging, and even discouraging at times. The best form of aid is not always obvious, and depends on conditions on the ground, urgency and resources available.

Last week, Dr. Jean William Pape, Director of the GHESKIO clinics in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, wrote a column in response to Cornell students who have asked, “How can I help?” Longing to help the Haitian people, students were eager to cancel their Spring Break plans and jet to Haiti. Yet much to their disappointment, Dr. Pape advised against such efforts, encouraging a less-than-thrilling form of support instead — check-writing. Dr. Pape acknowledged a harsh, but blunt truth that most gung-ho humanitarians don’t want to hear: Despite the best intentions, volunteers can sometimes cause more harm than good. Each additional body consumes food, water, space and medical attention. In effect, by going to Haiti with the intent of helping people get the resources they need, it is likely that volunteers could be taking resources away from those very people they are trying to help.

Though Dr. Pape’s advice may be specific to post-disaster situations, it is illustrative of the ethical issues revolving around humanitarian work. On the one hand, there is always a need for aid, and commendably, there is an abundance of people yearning for opportunities to assist. On the other hand, those driven to help are often limited in what they can feasibly do. Aid workers are praised for their spirit of sacrifice, and rightfully so. Yet, so often, their impact is exaggerated and their work romanticized. Put simply, intentions alone are not a precursor for relief.

That being said, these challenges should not impede nor undermine humanitarian efforts. Rather, we must be cognizant of these realities in order to develop the most effective responses to humanitarian crises.

Principally, volunteers must understand the limits of what they can accomplish and how they can best utilize the skills they do have in every situation. Overstating one’s abilities doesn’t help anyone. For example, as one would expect, doctors are currently in greater demand than college students in Haiti. Though doctors also consume resources and are typically a greater financial burden than students, their ability to provide life-saving medical assistance outweighs their cost. Organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and NYC Medics have done incredible work providing emergency medical care in Haiti by sending doctors from abroad to alleviate hospitals and clinics inundated with earthquake victims. Therefore, as Dr. Pape points out, college students’ efforts would best be spent raising money to support a clinic on the ground, like GHESKIO, or to send a surgeon from the United States to Haiti. Though writing a check is not quite as glamorous, funding cannot be trivialized, as donations are critical to sustaining essential aid operations. Humbly, Cornell students have recognized their role for what it can be at this time, and have admirably organized benefit concerts, bake sales and other fundraisers to support Haitian relief efforts.

That said, is it ever cost-effective to send student volunteers to do service work? If it costs $2,000 to send a student volunteer to a village in Africa, would that same $2,000 be better spent on vaccinations, clean water and school fees? I believe student volunteers can be beneficial in the long run, specifically in less volatile environments where their skills can be appropriately utilized.

Though most volunteers are driven by a sense of benevolence and sacrifice, to say that we only give, and do not gain, from those we seek to help is profoundly mistaken. Students should recognize the somewhat self-serving aspects of service work. Admitting that there are, in fact, some self-serving motivations does not undermine the value of service, but rather allows for a more honest assessment of such efforts.

Many students (myself included) return from service trips in the developing world describing their experiences as “life-changing.” This buzzword, though quite the cliché, is generally accurate. Students return to the United States with more than a broadened perspective and a distinct appreciation for the country in which they live. Such experiences are not only life-changing, but can inspire lifelong commitments to helping others. As Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia economist and director of the Earth Institute, points out, witnessing and experiencing extreme poverty firsthand gives students unique and unfiltered insight to life as it’s lived by billions of people on the planet. With an increased understanding of the challenges of poverty and of the successful and not-so-successful attempts to combat it, students will be better equipped to develop real solutions.

Thus, it seems that what volunteers do when they get back is as, if not more, important than what they do while abroad. To some extent, student service trips are a long-term global investment. Just as a university education gives students the tools to succeed in their careers, an intimate understanding of the world’s inequalities and how development works prepares young people to discover quality solutions later in their lives.

With more and more students taking gap years, joining the Peace Corps and volunteering in the developing world, universities should take a greater role in supporting students both before and after such ventures. In the words of humanitarian journalist, Nicholas Kristof, “One of the great failings of the American education system … is that young people can graduate from university without any understanding of poverty at home or abroad. Universities should make it a requirement that all graduates spend at least some time in the developing world, either by taking a ‘gap year’ or by studying abroad. If more Americans [did this]….our entire society would have a richer understanding of the world around us. And the rest of the world might also hold a more positive view of Americans.”

Institutionalizing service-learning as a cornerstone of the undergraduate curriculum would encourage more students to commit themselves to humanitarian causes, both domestically and internationally. It may also provide students the skills they need to implement more effective service projects. In this way, service-learning can have a positive impact on both students and those in need. Integrating service with academia just might be the very thing we need to make “doing good” a little bit easier.

Original Author: Carolyn Witte