Promises & Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering

Dr. Judith Lasker, a professor at Lehigh University, published Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering” in January 2016. I have not read it. According to The New York Times review of the book, Dr. Lasker presents data from a few hundred programs that coordinate mostly short-term assignments (lasting weeks rather than months), gleaned from several surveys, dozens of interviews and some brief trips of her own. She did not look at large organizations like Doctors Without Borders , which are organized differently and generally do not use unpaid volunteers or, if they do, require much longer commitments for assignments.

“There is little evidence that short-term volunteer trips produce the kinds of transformational changes that are often promised,” Dr. Lasker finds. Of course, not all short-term volunteering is the same, but Dr. Lasker says the criticisms must be taken seriously, and that the most frequently published critiques have appeared in medical journals, which address the ethical problem of allowing medical students to work far beyond their training in communities with few resources. I would love to see some of these academic articles!

Sadly, few of these programs have been evaluated in terms of their impact on the communities where they serve. While the impact of surgical programs can be obvious and dramatic, efforts at screening for disease and disease prevention are often far less so. A representative of one program memorably told Dr. Lasker that they “just know” their work makes a difference, while a sizable minority of programs attempt no formal analysis of their achievements. Lasker asked for such and was in for a shock: “I did not expect how often the evaluation question seems to take people by surprise.” According to the Times, more than one of Dr. Lasker’s sources mused that the most beneficial aspect of the volunteer effort might be the cash infused into a community from the fees volunteers usually pay.

In addition, this short-term volunteering can lead to LESS understanding by volunteers of poverty. In an interview about the book, she notes that some participants come back with what she calls “bad learning,” and saying: “Poor people are so happy; they smiled, and sang and danced, and they don’t mind being poor”, stereotypes about poverty “based on spending a week where you don’t understand the language and where you only talk to people through translators.” (Also see: Extreme poverty is not beautiful)

“The developing world has become a playground for the redemption of privileged souls looking to atone for global injustices by escaping the vacuity of modernity and globalization.”

Dr. Lasker says, “Ultimately, my goal is not to advocate for all volunteering or to call for its dismantling. Rather, I hope to contribute to making it more effective and valuable to all concerned.” I feel exactly the same when I write about such.

Also see this story about lessons from the book Dr. Lasker teachers in one of her classes. And this blog by Dr. Lasker, “Orphanage visits–are they ever okay?”

And also see my own blogs on similar subjects:

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