Clear as day, hard to see: The way power blinds us to bad outcomes in international volunteering

December 12, 2017

Eric Hartman, Haverford College & globalsl 

For more than twenty years, I’ve been working to promote GOOD community-engagement and partnership work, variously called service, service-learning, volunteering, and community-based learning. Since 2014, I’ve been part of two global networks, The GASP Working Group and the Better Volunteering, Better Care initiative, that specifically discourage two common types of volunteering: un-credentialed medical brigades and volunteering in orphanages. I’m going to briefly breakdown why these global networks of medical doctors, human rights lawyers, Save the Children and UNICEF fight these two types of volunteering. Then I’m going to share why it’s so hard for most people to see the truth of these challenges, before closing with some thoughts on stepping forward.

Orphanage volunteering: more than 60 years of research indicates that families are better for children than institutions. That’s true of extended families, foster families, poor families, and wealthy families. Families are better options. As a result of this clear finding (and one that is intuitive at its core), major foundations and government agencies stopped funding orphanages a couple decades ago. The number of orphanages dropped. Then – poof! They started appearing all over the place. After child protection advocates looked into it a bit, they found the reason. International efforts to do good create revenue streams. To connect with that revenue, people have pretended children are orphans, institutionalized kids that have loving families, and even trafficked children, forcibly removing them from their families to convert them into revenue-generating “do-gooder” opportunities. This is a well-documented crisis – in popular media, academic journals, and through short documentaries. When hearing this, many people believe they know that “one good orphanage” that they / their church / their family has worked with in the past. Think it through: if institutionalization should be a last resort, the children who should be institutionalized are fundamentally the most vulnerable children in a country – then they are the ones to “benefit from” a revolving door of volunteers? That just doesn’t pass the sniff test. Here’s a video breakdown for the uninitiated:

Un-credentialed Medical brigades: The GASP Working Group is critical of un-credentialed individuals (anyone who is not licensed to provide care in that country) going abroad, to resource poor communities, in order to gain “experience.” This phenomenon is also tied to scarcity and market factors, though in this case it’s the scarcity of medical school acceptances and the perception that high school and undergraduate students should gain clinical experience in order to improve their odds of acceptance. Not only is this dangerous for individual patients and something that has led to numerous, documented cases of unnecessary harm and even death. This phenomenon also pulls resources away from growing health systems in host communities. Instead of learning how to support local doctors and health care systems, students and sometimes even faculty pop-in, diagnose, treat, and exit, leaving behind unsustainable treatment plans, zero patient monitoring systems, and frequently a local medical provider that has to deal with a new mess. This is also a well-documented crisis – in popular media, academic books, and through short documentaries.

Despite the clarity of these issues, thousands of people continue to take part in exactly these kinds of international volunteer programs. Why is that? Well, it’s hegemonic discursive power. I recently drew on Eric Liu’s Why ordinary people need to understand power to suggest how power influences many, perhaps most North Americans’ assumptions regarding international development and their place within it. Here’s a snapshot of that work, which is expanded in “Community-engaged scholarship, knowledge, and dominant discourse: A cautionary tale from the global development sector,” in the Journal of Leadership Studies.

Note: obviously, these photos were chosen for this post because, de-contextualized, they recreate, reify, and re-present exactly the kind of problematic narrative I’m referring to. They are meant to serve as instances of the problem.

Because discursive power is so elemental in producing bad outcomes, we must re-imagine our stories, and we must do that collaboratively, beyond campuses.

If institutions of higher education are going to seriously engage with global citizenship development through experiential learning partnerships, we must fundamentally recalibrate the stories we tell ourselves. In the case of higher education, that means shifting away from a narrative where we serve students, produce knowledge, and occasionally share it through public-facing or extension programs. We must instead become part of a story in which we advance public purposes by serving students and partnering with other organizations, communities, and institutions with the greatest possible integrity. In this, hopefully emerging story, we simultaneously educate students and advance community interests through collaborative partnership. We learn from people in low resource communities about those communities; we walk forward only if they suggest it’s appropriate; we walk together through relationship. It is only through deep, community-grounded understanding that collaborative and productive civic engagement, development, or health work can occur.

Deepening understanding through truly collaborative work is an ongoing process: what are the implications for international volunteering and short-term study abroad?  

Multiple, reliable pieces of research indicate that community organizations and community members would prefer longer visits from student volunteers, yet the trend in study abroad programming is toward short-term, faculty-led programs of less than 8 weeks. Even in terms of institutional partnership, that’s not how relationships develop: from seeing one another once a year, for two months at most. And, indeed, dropping in briefly once a year creates the kinds of conditions necessary to maintain the problematic narratives that allow North Americans to tell themselves that they are the only viable solutions to other countries’ challenges. Visiting so briefly, and infrequently, is unlikely to reveal the complex patterns of power, collaboration, tension, and change in host communities – much less the ways in which North American policy contributes structurally to local deprivation. How do we move forward ethical programming, knowing students will likely be interested in short-term engagements? Well, for starters, let’s not pretend we can do ethical engagement on the cheap.

My take is that universities should not take on their own, direct international partnerships, unless they have the institutional staffing, commitment, and resources to ensure ongoing engagement with partners throughout the calendar year. Some institutions have this capacity. And some institutions maintain presence in multiple locations throughout the world, year-round. But many institutions are attempting to offer their students alternative break, winter break, Maymester, and summer programs in a variety of locations, with no institutional commitment to or presence in any one. That’s where reliable intermediary organizations, such as Amizade (disclosure: where I have worked in the past), Child Family Health International, and the Foundation for Sustainable Development can be so vital. These organizations are present on the ground continuously. They are mission-driven development organizations, with clear standards of practice, that educate students and cooperate with volunteers as part of advancing their community, health, and development-focused missions. (There are likely other good organizations, but knowing and rating these organizations is incredibly difficult).

Of course, NGOs and community-based organizations (smaller NGOs, rooted in host communities) may have greater capacity for continuous presence and partnership, but universities have the clear edge when it comes to capacity for sustained learning. Intermediary organizations can’t require students to enroll in critical development studies, world history, and political economy as pre-requisite or complementary courses within an engaged learning arc over time. Sharpening the tools of critical reflection and hegemonic critique is central to engaged learning done well.

If institutions of higher education can commit to ongoing relationship, and want to do the hard work of re-imagining the stories we are part of, then I recommend the fair-trade learning standards. Those standards came out of a community-NGO-university partnership. They’re extremely demanding to engage from the university side of the equation, but I know parts of Northwestern, the University of Dayton, Dartmouth College, Roger Williams University, and other institutions are employing the standards as part of their self-study with community partners and other stakeholders. We’re taking it on at Haverford too – a topic for a future blog post.

Thanks for reading. And many thanks to Professor Judith Lasker and her colleagues at Lehigh University. Attending and presenting at their AIEA Thematic Forum: Improving the Quality and Value of Short-term Student Experiences in Global Health sparked this reflective post. Your comments are most welcome. And we at globalsl are always interested in guest contributions to the blog.

Eric Hartman is Executive Director of the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship at Haverford College, and co-founder of globalsl. With Richard Kiely, Christopher Boettcher, and Jessica Friedrichs he recently completed Community-based global learning: The theory and practice of ethical engagement at home and abroadwhich will be released by Stylus Press in June 2018. His writing is reflective of his own inquiry and is not advanced as a representation of official policy of Haverford College or the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. 


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