How to Have the Best Possible Global Health Volunteer Trip

June 3, 2013

I’m pleased to share these guidelines from Professor Judith N. Lasker, who previously contributed a post on Short-Term Programs in Global Health, the subject of her book, Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering. Important advice is below. Enjoy:

By Judith N. Lasker

So you want to go on an international health service trip?  The reports of life-transforming experiences are inspiring and the advertisements exciting.   But there are hundreds of different options; how do you choose?  Let’s assume that you want the highest quality experience, both for your own benefit and for that of the country you will be visiting.  What should you consider in selecting a trip?

The following recommendations are based on research for a book on short-term health volunteering, “Hoping to Help; the Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering” (Cornell U. Press, 2016).  The research included extensive interviews with organizations that send volunteers abroad, host country staff who work with them, and with experienced volunteers, as well as my own participation in trips to two countries with two different organizations.

BEFORE YOU GO:

  1. Examine your motives carefully.  If your main goal is to travel to an ‘exotic’ location, or impress a girlfriend, or party away from home, being a health volunteer may not be for you.   International service trips require dedication, hard work for long hours–often in uncomfortable conditions–and a degree of sobriety!  If, on the other hand, your main goal is to change the world, be realistic; your accomplishments during a short-term trip will be limited at best.  Have modest expectations and be open to learning as much as you can.
  2. Consider your personality and work habits:
    1. Can you work well as part of a team, take orders from a leader you’ve just met, do what may seem like menial chores, and subordinate your own needs to those of the group and the work requirements?
    2. Do you have the stamina to keep going for long days, particularly in very hot weather and often with minimal facilities?
    3. Are you flexible enough to adapt, once you are in the host country, to conditions and activities you did not expect?
  3. Investigate the program as carefully as possible.  Look for the following characteristics:
    1. Is the trip you’re considering part of a regular program where the organization works in the same community on a continuous basis?  If this is a once and done visit, the value may be very limited and there is even the possibility for doing harm.
    2. Can you find an opportunity that lasts several weeks?  Many host country staff members I interviewed consider a one-week stay as far from ideal, unless you bring specific skills to a context in which they can be put to maximum use in a short time. At least three to four weeks is optimal, since it gives you the time to adjust to the climate, orient yourself to the country and to the work situation, and establish a routine for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.   You may also have a better opportunity to learn about the country and its people, helping to avoid some of the quick cultural judgments and work errors that can occur in briefer trips.
    3. If it’s a one-time surgical mission, are the local facilities adequate for follow-up and treatment of complications that may occur after you leave?  If not, reconsider; you don’t want people to be worse off because you were there trying to be helpful.
    4. Will you have an opportunity to get to know and learn from people in the local community about the health needs and concerns in their area and how these are being addressed?  Mutuality in the relationship between hosts and volunteers is one of the essential characteristics of good service trips identified by the people I interviewed.
    5. Are the activities carried out by the program ones that supplement rather than replace local talent?  E.g. if you’re going to spend one to two thousand dollars to do unskilled work, consider sending even a portion of that money to an organization that will hire local residents to do the work.   Or travel with an organization that uses some of your fees to hire community members to work with you. And if there are physicians or community health workers who know the community and speak the language, do not compete with them by offering similar services.
    6. Are the volunteers who provide medical care properly licensed at home and approved by the host country (if required)?  Be wary of the temptation for pre-medical and medical students to do hands-on medical care for which they have no training and which would be illegal back home and unethical in any context.
    7. Are the volunteers generally well-prepared for and well-matched to their activities?  An example of a questionable activity is new arrivals offering health education lessons without knowing anything about the local practices and concerns. Imagine if a person from outside your own country, who has never been there before and does not speak the language, came to your community and gave you a lecture on how you should behave!  You can assist local experts and learn from them; just be sure you’re not going to be acting as an expert if you are not one.
    8. Does the organization offer an orientation to the country beyond the basics of travel, shots, and what to pack?  Do they provide information about history, culture, language, the health needs, and the specifics of the work situation?
    9. Does the organization do anything to evaluate the impact of volunteers? Ask to see reports on what they have accomplished in the past.
  4. Even if you do not yet have specialized skills or cannot spend weeks away from home, you may still want the experience of traveling to another country to participate in a volunteer project.  If so, look for an organization as described in #3, and then take advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can.  Read ahead about the history of the country and try to gain an understanding of what the needs are and why.  Definitely learn some key phrases in the local language in the area where you will be working (not just the official European language) and use them whenever you can.  It shows you’re making an effort and trying to connect, and that will be appreciated.

DURING YOUR STAY

This part is easier, especially if you have taken the steps outlined above before you go.  The best volunteers, according to the host country staff I interviewed, are those who:

  • work hard
  • follow the rules
  • are flexible in adapting to unexpected or challenging conditions
  • make an effort to understand culture and language, and
  • respect the people they work with

Never assume that people in the host community are lacking in skills and knowledge.  So much of ‘service’ assumes the superior capabilities and understanding of the ‘server’; this may be based on cultural stereotypes and often results in a less than optimal experience.  Host country staff members cite lack of respect for their training and knowledge as one of the characteristics of the (fortunately rare) volunteers they would rather not have to work with.

WHEN YOU RETURN

  1. The ideal volunteer understands the need for humility, both while volunteering and afterward.  Specifically, after you return:
    1. Do not claim that you ‘made a difference’, ‘brought hope to the people of …’, or ‘changed lives’, and try not to let your local newspaper/church group/student club/relatives claim it on your behalf.  You may have helped a few people some or a lot (particularly if you have specialized skills and have participated in a program that builds capacity over the long-term), or you may have had no lasting impact at all.  The frequent glowing reports on volunteering feed into a popular but potentially patronizing narrative that suggests that what poor people need is a quick visit from generous (and often unskilled) outsiders and that may downplay the local populace’s own capacity to solve problems.
    2. Do not claim that you now understand poor people and how different from (or similar to!) you they are, or that although they are poor they are much happier/less stressed than the people you know at home.  No such generalizations can be accurate about any people, and it’s impossible to understand a country and its people after a short visit or probably even after a long one.  You are a visitor, a small person in a very big world who is, hopefully, trying to act ethically and do the very best you can within your human limits.
  2. Many volunteers are profoundly moved by their experiences and want to change their own lives as a result.  Some people are able to do this, but it is not easy, especially as the experience recedes into the past and the realities of life at home take over. It is helpful to stay connected to others who share your hopes and plans and to find ways to continue to learn about how you can make the world a better place, at home as well as in other countries.  There is much that you can do to promote better lives for people in your own community.

If you follow these recommendations, the chances are very good that you will have an excellent experience and possibly make some difference.  And have fun as well!

Some other resources that will be helpful and provide greater detail on some of the issues addressed above:

Thank you to Sirry Alang, Ana Arteaga,  Gail Gulliksen, Eric Hartman, Caroline Kusi, Shira Siegel, and Ellen Sogolow for their comments on earlier drafts.

 

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