Two weeks ago, I attended a Stanford master class for admitted students. The class, taught by Political Science professor Rob Reich, had this title: "Ethics of Volunteering and Community Service: Why Service is Overrated and Sometimes Bad for Society."
You can see why I was intrigued. How could helping others possibly be construed as being harmful? It went against everything I'd been led to believe about volunteer work.
Reich started off by asking us to consider this scenario: You're walking on the beach and come across a high cliff where people are throwing themselves off one by one. More people keep pouring in and there's no one around to help except for you. You have two options, assuming you are equally capable of both: A) comfort the injured below, or B) build a barrier at the top of the cliff.
Most likely, you chose B. It cuts off the problem at the source, and though you'll be abandoning those at the bottom, you will be saving an infinite amount of people from mindless suffering. Then why is it that in real life most people choose A?
Reich went on to explain the analogy, making an important distinction between what he calls "charity" and "justice." Option A (charity) represents community service, treatment of the issue's symptoms. Option B (justice) represents policy, an institutional change targeting the cause.
Of course, with complex systems like poverty that are historically rooted in legal oppression and hierarchy, Option B is easier said than done. No one can guarantee the amount of time it'll take to make any significant change, or even if change is possible in our current capitalist society. It's very easy to feel disempowered and lost in politics, especially for young people.
Right now, you might be thinking, "Obviously a long-term solution would be best, but in the meantime, isn't community service better than nothing?" That depends on how you look at it. Some believe community service has lost its original value among young people, since it is mostly used to pad resumes or to fulfill a school's mandatory volunteer hours. (Talk about a paradox!)
Can you blame them? Not only are high schoolers forced to jump through certain hoops in an increasingly competitive college admissions process, but I also think you'd be hard-pressed to find any service that is completely free of self-interest. I believe that everyone expects something in return for her work, whether that's service hours, experience or simply a reason to pat herself on the back. Personally, I don't find that selfish, just reasonable. We all want to help others, but we're also naturally inclined to help ourselves.
Then there are those who claim that motive doesn't matter, as long as the end result is the same. But what exactly is that end result? We still have yet to answer the question: Is community service, or any form of charity, helpful?
A lot of the time, the evidence points to "No." In Emma Ignaszewski's Medium.com article "'Giving back' has an identity crisis," she quotes Reich. She also says, "No matter the intent, we have seen centuries of evidence that many acts of international volunteering are no better than imperialism, paternalism and downright exploitation."
Not to mention the whole "white savior industrial complex" emphasized in Western media, in which a well-to-do white person travels to developing countries to save all the poor, uncivilized people from their collective misery. This is harmful in two ways: Rarely do these visits have a real impact on the community, and it creates the perception that non-white people are incapable of helping themselves.
Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole summarized it wonderfully on Twitter, "The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."
Even monetary donations are subject to this scrutinization. Large donations from the extremely wealthy are often signs of power disguised as charity. Furthermore, it can be tricky to know which organizations to donate to. Some are corrupt and take the money for themselves.
There's also the matter of whether these donations are only perpetrating a system of reliance, keeping the disadvantaged in a position of debt.
If we are to extend our hands in aid, we must make sure our fingers can support the weight. As Henry David Thoreau wrote, "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."
Aim for the root.