Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Do no harm

My only trip to the African continent was for a specific purpose.  No, not a safari.  I had an academic interest that I was pursuing: Does volunteer tourism benefit the local community, or is it merely a feel good trip for the volunteers?

I spent a good chunk of time looking at various organizations that run such programs.  After weeks of poring over the information, I selected one, paid up, got all my medical shots, and ... I was off to Tanzania.

Turned out that my hunch was not off-base.

It was disappointing that I could not reject my hypothesis that the volunteer tourism doesn't really contribute much to the local community.

I filed a couple of op-eds, but not about the volunteer tourism itself.  I wrote about everything else, it seems like.  And, of course, my excommunication at the university meant that I didn't have any forum to talk about it with "peers."  Nobody cares!

At least I didn't help with delivering babies or doing circumcisions!
As a member of the faculty in global health studies at Northwestern University, I’ve studied medical volunteering in Tanzania since 2011, including over 1,600 hours observing volunteer-patient interactions across six health facilities. I have spoken with more than 200 foreign volunteers in Tanzania, plus conducted formal interviews with 48 foreign volunteers and 90 hosting health professionals.
This research shows that some help does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes.
Is it the cynical me, or is it the case that there are crazy things in many walks of life that people intentionally do not talk about, which is why I am drawn to the studies like that one in the Scientific American?  Do most people really go about with "do not rock the boat" attitude and are merely happy to collect their paychecks?  There is something seriously wrong here.
Empirical data about the medical voluntourism industry is sparse. The most-cited figure estimates up to 10 million volunteers travel abroad annually, spending approximately $4 billion.
Where do these people go?
Popular destinations tend to be both lower-income countries and tourist destinations: Tanzania, Ghana, Cambodia, India, Nepal, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and others. Many organizations’ websites prioritize prospective volunteers’ interests rather than the interests of those they purportedly serve.
You saw Tanzania in that list?
Research has found that volunteering in health settings can be detrimental, even if the volunteers don’t realize it. Volunteers often over-estimate their positive impact.
Say that again, sister!


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