Dan Schreiber on MonserateWhen deciding whether to volunteer for a relief trip, you always need to ask the hard question: Would it be more useful to those in need if I simply sent money instead of myself? Sometimes this is obvious. If someone needs a new roof, it is far better in the short run to send them $1000 so they can buy materials and hire local workers who need a job, rather than to show up as an unskilled worker with no supplies who needs to be housed and fed for a week.

I recently got back from a learning tour of Colombia that cost my church and me around $1500. Should I instead have just sent the money to a human rights or service organization in Colombia? There are certainly roofs that need to be built there and, perhaps more importantly, human rights workers who need money to do their critical work. I know people always talk up the “human relationship” benefits from such a trip, but I want to justify my trip in purely economic terms. Shouldn’t Colombia see at least $1500 of value from my trip since I allegedly went there not just to learn but to be of assistance?


What I need is some kind of success criteria — something I can provide that Colombia would pay for with $1500 in hard U.S. cash. Let’s start high:

Goal: Stop the Colombian paramilitary and guerillas from kidnapping people and driving other people off lands so they can grow coca to fund more violence. That would definitely be worth $1500 to Colombians (or rather, to the Colombians I want to help, which does not include paramilitary or guerrillas).

Unfortunately, I don’t speak Spanish well enough to enter into complex logical and human rights arguments with paramilitary and guerilla leaders to convince them to abandon their thirst for power. I don’t even speak Spanish well enough to make it on my own to an area where I could be conveniently kidnapped. So, next goal.

Goal: Since drug money is what funds violence on all sides in Colombia, and since the drug supply is in response to American drug demand, figure out a way to eliminate drug use in America. Although some Colombians would lose a lot more than $1500 if I were to accomplish this, we need again to consider that they are not the Colombians I am interested in helping. I think the best way to eliminate drug demand in the United States is to eliminate the root causes of drug use, such as economic hopelessness for poor people, and boredom for wealthy youth.

After checking into this, it appears that restructuring American capitalism into a humanitarian and egalitarian society of peace and tranquility is a bit more work than I have time for right now. Plus, I wouldn’t know where to start. Maybe I should lower my goals a little bit.

Goal: Write a letter to my congressmen opposing the Colombian free-trade agreement they’re going to vote on in April. It is based on Mexico’s NAFTA agreement, and is guaranteed to help multinational corporations at the expense of poor Colombian farmers, who will then likely have more incentive to grow things like coca to survive. Preventing it from passing would be a well-spent $1500.

Tim Johnson, Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, of course, do usually consult me before voting on international trade agreements and foreign policy, so this is a simple thing to do. However, they are only three votes. I will certainly write my letters about this, but my influence with other congresspeople is quite a bit less, so I’m not convinced that, in the end, I will be able to sway things.

Fair-Trade Fruit WorkersGoal: Generate $1500 in sales for a Colombian company. I visited Fruta del los Andes, a fair-trade company that makes dried fruit to sell in North America. They pay living wages to their fruit suppliers and workers, and use organic fruit grown in sustainable ways.

My idea was to have our local fair-trade retail outlet, Ten Thousand Villages in downtown Champaign, buy the fruit and resell it. Unfortunately for me, they are already selling it, as well as free-trade coffee and chocolate. So, I can’t justify my trip based on additional sales. I suppose it is possible that readers of Smile Politely could rush out and buy $1500 worth of Frutas del los Andes, but that would assume there are some people still reading this article, which is a pretty unrealistic flight of fancy on my part. I guess I need further to lower my standards.

Goal: Feel guilty for leading a nice comfortable life, and be racked by despair over the intractable problems of the world. Finally, something easy to do, and something I am pretty good at. However, I’m not sure this is worth much to Colombians. 1500 pesos maybe (about $2), but probably not 1500 dollars.

Well, it seems I’m at a dead end. Perhaps this is why people tend to play up all those touchy-feely human relationship benefits so much. Justifying a trip like this based on economic benefits just isn’t going to happen.

However, on the bright side, I did get a lot of relational value out of my trip. There is something about actually seeing how people live by spending time in someone’s home that provides a connection far beyond what words can describe. Getting to know real people for just a little while, and experiencing a small slice of their lives, does leave a lasting imprint. I will likely advocate for Colombia in my spheres of influence for years to come.

But is it enough to bore people with stories and pictures? To raise America’s consciousness of Colombia just a little? I hope so. Because at the rate I’m going, it looks like I will have to pay off that $1500 to Colombia little by little over the course of many years.