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!



Ramesh said...

I utterly and totally reject this hypothesis that volunteering is more harmful than helpful.

I read through the article in The Scientific American. Full of biases and one way logic to suit a pre conceived hypothesis. It has gems like the one you have quoted

"This research shows that some help does indeed cause harm. In fact, the international volunteer placement industry opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes."

Of course some help does cause harm. Sure a few outcomes can be disastrous. But how much does good is of course not mentioned.. So, for the "some" that does harm, should everything be stopped. One Mary has been quoted to come to sweeping conclusions. "Fistula tourism ?? Really ?

The article also seems to indicate that all volunteering is bad. It deals with purely a subsect - a group of youngsters, probably not medically qualified. What about MSF for example, which is largely voluntary. To paint everybody who is a volunteer in the same brush is absurd.

Full disclosure - I am now a volunteer myself, though not a tourist, and see everyday the good the volunteers do. I'll throttle the author if I ever meet her !!! :)

Sriram Khé said...

"MSF for example, which is largely voluntary"

The article that I linked to, and my own academic curiosity, is not about organizations like MSF. Those are professional outfits. One cannot simply sign up with MSF and go treat ebola patients.

The article and my question is about a very particular set of tourists who go volunteering. You are inappropriately mixing up this with genuine volunteering efforts that qualified people do.

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