The Real Cost of Lifestyle Altruism

A one way flight from New York to Mumbai costs about Rs. 51,727, or $773.95. Volunteering American students coming to India to work with underprivileged children spend about Rs.700 daily in India during and towards their stay–not including discretionary expenses like shopping, tourist visits, and other recreation. A month into their visit, accordingly, the average volunteering American has spent at least Rs.72,727.

Most times a volunteer’s schedule is less exacting than would be that of a dedicated local employee at the average Indian NGO. But assume it’s about as busy with do-gooding and just as valuable, for argument, and it’s worth Rs. 14,000 per month. Then, the value of the volunteer’s charitable service to India is (Rs. 21,000 + Rs. 14,000) = Rs. 35,000 at best, given the travel expenses are repatriated to an American airline. Ostensibly the volunteer’s spent Rs. 72,727 + Rs. 14,000= Rs. 88,727 but the value added by them one month in is really only Rs. 35,000. The discrepancy factor between their perceived value added by volunteering and the actual value added is about 1.6779.

But, that’s not all! They’ll return by flight spending another Rs.51,727 at least. So, their perceived value added by volunteering is at least Rs.140,454. Though the real value added by volunteering trails behind at Rs. 35,000, growing the discrepancy factor to about 4.0129. If the American volunteer coming to India were really concerned about delivering the best value they can to the host nation they could do better by simply donating Rs. 140,454 to an Indian charity with local dedicated employees and forgo the life experiences afforded them by this costly exercise in poverty tourism.

A volunteer such as one described has contributed merely Rs. 35,000 to the beneficiary while funding their lifestyle choices to the tune of Rs. 140,454 – Rs. 35,000 = Rs. 105,454. They’d do better staying home, and sending the money abroad, unless they could add more value by volunteering.