It benefits both the volunteers and the communities involved
Many charitable institutions today offer programs that allow undergraduate students to travel to developing countries to perform various volunteer tasks. Volunteer tourism was created as an alternative to typical tourist programs in an effort to promote more responsible and sustainable forms of travel. Currently, there is a debate as to whether this is truly a charitable form of tourism, or whether it unintentionally exploits those it intends to benefit. Despite the controversial nature of these programs, I believe that voluntourism has had many tangible benefits for developing countries.
A common criticism of voluntourism is that the “voluntourists” are driven solely by personal motives. Although this is a valid criticism, one cannot ignore the value of the work that they put into the projects. In a survey done at the Abi Bakar Sidik School in Morocco in 2009, although only 15 per cent of foreigners chose Morocco for altruistic reasons only, 89 per cent of the students in the school perceived the work of the foreigners as positive. In fact, the school is run solely by international volunteers and would not exist otherwise.
Thus, it can be said that programs such as the aforementioned one do support economically disadvantaged children, who probably would not have access to education if it were not for this volunteer work.
Another criticism of voluntourism is that it harms the host country’s economy by occupying jobs that would otherwise go to the local population. However, I believe that the redistribution of wealth from developed to developing countries far outweighs any decrease in wealth. According to the Johns Hopkins Institute, eight European countries contributed 23 per cent of the volunteers in all of South America in 1998. This tremendous allocation of labour could potentially take a great burden off of government spending, allowing capital to go to more important programs. In fact, United Nations Volunteers, a program by the UN, states that voluntary action contributes eight to 14 per cent of the GDP of these developing countries.
In addition to the tangible benefits, voluntourism has immeasurable social benefits. For young individuals, volunteering abroad provides opportunities for self-development and a perspective outside sheltered, Western lives. In addition, the local population can benefit from direct contact with different cultures, which could diminish inequality in these societies. Essentially, if it were not for these types of programs that combine tourism and volunteer work, these areas may not receive wealth from more developed countries.
Aditya Chawla is a second-year student at Trinity College studying laboratory medicine and pathobiology.
Health care voluntourism does more harm than good
The World Health Organization estimates a global shortage of over four million health care providers, with the greatest need in South East Asia. From this scarcity sprung the recent enthusiasm around health voluntourism projects: short-term volunteer programs that provide an opportunity for individuals to conduct health care related work abroad — including clinical tasks and patient care. These volunteers are often undergraduate university students and, as one such student myself, I would be lying if I said that I have never considered going on one of these trips. It seems like the perfect opportunity to do a good deed while receiving a completely unique international experience. What’s there to lose?
Although health voluntourism may be a great experience for the individual embarking on the trip and is by nature altruistic, it’s often not the best way to help, as it poses several important ethical concerns and sustainability issues.
To volunteer in the health care industry in Canada, individuals must undergo a rigorous application and training process and be supervised during most, if not all, of their duties. Undergraduate student volunteers are not permitted to perform even the most basic medical procedures; a patient’s right to quality health care is never sacrificed for efficiency. Does travelling to a developing nation rid us of these standards?
The argument is often that, in developing nations, having at least some care is better than no care. However, this mindset only creates a harsh double standard in health care between affluent and developing countries.
Furthermore, health voluntourism poses a threat to patient autonomy. Volunteers travelling to developing countries to offer aid in health care often do not have prior knowledge of the culture or language of the place that they are travelling to. This strongly impedes patient communications with the health care provider and undermines the choices and rights of the patient.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in these global volunteer trips is that they promote a culture of volunteering in short episodes. All too often, these initiatives are not integrated into the local health care facilities and only provide a Band-Aid solution at best. In the long term, this is unsustainable, with many patients not receiving adequate ongoing or follow-up care.
To volunteer in the health care profession is laudable, but we must tread with caution. As students, before participating in one of these trips, we should take it upon ourselves to look into the organizations offering these trips, seek possible alternatives, learn as much as possible about the place we would like to travel to, and ask the hard questions about ethics and sustainability.
Sandy Wang is a third-year student at Trinity College pursuing a double major in neuroscience and psychology.