Flight to Africa: $1500. Rent: $400. That safari you’ll go on: $125. Food: $400. International SOS Coverage: $200. Cost to student: priceless.
Come on down, Duke students! Boy, does Bob Barker have an all-inclusive showcase and some unnecessarily frequent hugs for you! Every summer, programs like DukeEngage and Sanford’s Service Opportunities in Leadership, institutions like the Duke Global Health Initiative and scholarships like the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship Program send hundreds of students abroad with funding to complete service projects and contribute to the global community. And Duke isn’t alone. Princeton University funds “bridge-year” programs, sending incoming freshmen on University-sponsored international service trips. Yale offers funding for Spring break and summer service trips through their Reach Out Program.
With all of this investment, there is an implicit value statement: sending a student abroad is worth it. It costs thousands of dollars to send a single student abroad; international service trips can hardly be considered to be free labor. Yet somewhere along the line a donor or organization or university has decided that it’s worth the money.
So what do you get for that money? Sometimes you get English classes, sometimes a newly constructed school. Lots of students work with microfinance organizations, lots work in hospitals and clinics. The thing about college students is that, with a summer service trip, what you get is two or three months of unskilled labor. Often we have a passion about something or an interest in something, but rarely are college students coming for a few months in a position to really offer something new.
Doctors Without Borders and similar programs make more sense to me. The value of adequate medical care is clear, and, in some circumstances and locations, there is a distinct lack of qualified doctors. But where in the world is there a distinct lack of what college students offer? A distinct lack of people who, while educated, don’t have particularly unique skills? Most of the jobs that service trips accomplish could have been accomplished by the local community had even a fraction of the money spent on the service trip been redirected to fund a local project. How do you justify spending thousands of dollars to provide “free labor” to a community when that money could be paid to a community member to do the same job? Local income generation only makes further development possible, and sustainable development is that which is accomplished by community members themselves.
If you assert that these trips are a waste of money though, you’ll come under some pretty serious fire. Telling anybody that a life-changing experience they’ve had was a waste of someone else’s money is never the safest of options. How could you possibly consider the construction of a school, which now provides hundreds of children with a place to learn, a waste? How could you say that trying to help AIDs patients adjust to the necessary lifestyle isn’t worth it? More importantly, how can you say that the sacrifices someone made and the homesickness they felt in order to selflessly help others wasn’t merited?
Allude to anything but the merits of service and people begin to get defensive, but I think often people don’t distinguish between the different ways something can be considered to be wasteful. Either the act itself is a waste, or the method in which the act is accomplished could be a waste. Obviously doing your math homework has value, but flying in a ringer to do it for you seems to be upsetting the whole cost versus pay off balance. Sometimes it seems as though development work is conducted in a manner that wastes a significant amount of money and effort while hiding behind the claim that humanitarian efforts are never a waste. Volunteer work and helping others is untouchable; only the immoral and the selfish are there to speak against it.
But this makes me wonder: What would happen if students doing service trips had to pay their own way? Obviously that would exclude a large percentage of people who aren’t able to pay for such an expensive trip from having that experience. But for those who have the money, would they still go? What price tag would they put on their own service? Would they consider their personal development to only be possible with a $1500 plane ticket?
My work this summer wasn’t worth the cost given the benefit to the community. Guess what? Solar panels and electricians already exist in Uganda. There are Ugandan entrepreneurs and innovators who could have done what my project did and so much more with that funding. I also couldn’t have made the decision to personally invest that much money on three months of my life.
But I don’t have to, and neither do other Duke students. Quite simply, we have incredible opportunities to snag all-inclusive developing world get-aways. This makes it easy to forget that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. To be able to say we’ve made an impact abroad, we must think critically about balancing money spent with the respective values of personal development and service.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her biweekly column will run every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.