A world without short-term volunteers abroad would be that much poorer

By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH —-

Another Labor Day weekend has finished and all over North America, schools and universities are preparing to welcome students back to the classroom. The 53rd Week is particularly excited as were a few days away from bringing our inaugural group of third-year global health undergraduates from McMaster University down to La Romana for their Embedded Learning Experience (ELE). This educational experience is meant to give these global health focused undergrad students exposure to global health issues through experiential learning abroad. It is, in essence, one of the many formats of short-term global health experiences that we are working to optimize here at The 53rd Week. 

In the midst of our preparations to head down, I chanced upon a New York Times article on my Facebook feed that was a rousing defense about the reasons behind studying the humanities. Fittingly, as many humanities (and science)-major students begin a year anew, the article states that the study of humanities is on the decline in universities as students report being pressured to pursue degrees and areas of concentration that will lead “directly to good jobs.” 

In an interesting analogy, the Times states that:

“STUDYING the humanities should be like standing among colleagues and students on the open deck of a ship moving along the endless coastline of human experience. Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale.”

The article then goes on to describe the many benefits that folks can derive from pursuing humanities studies, closing with an entreaty that highlights the massive intangible benefits that come from “clear thinking, clear writing, and a lifelong engagement” with literature. Poetically, the piece states that “[good writing] is about developing a rational grace and energy in your conversation with the world around you.”

There are many parallels with short-term global health participation. While trend-wise, the phenomenon of short-term volunteering abroad is not on the decline, recent media and academic interest on the subject has led to a massive barrage on the nature of such experiences.  As weve described in previous blogs on this website, the overall picture of such efforts portrayed by numerous organizations, academia, and Anglosphere news outlets has tended towards the negative implications of such trips.

Much like the humanities are losing their lustre among university students, many interested young professionals are becoming quickly ambivalent about short-term work abroad. An apt metaphor from the article, short-term volunteeers have increasingly “retreated” into the bowels of the global health ship. 

And thats a shame.

Beyond the obvious pressures of time, finances, and employment responsibilities that sometimes make short-term work the only option for these young professionals to pursue their interest, we are quickly forgetting why people go on such experiences in the first place and the benefits that are derived from such participation. We can agree among us that in their current form, short-term trips do have harms…. but can it also be agreed that there are certain benefits derived for participants, institutions, and most importantly, the host community? I believe that short-term participation is far more complex than a simple go or dont go, and that pursuing a middle ground is helpful for remembering why the phenomenon exists in the first place.

There are, to be sure, myriad reasons why people go abroad. Some truly want to help and have identified a need there. They have the best of intentions, hoping to make a meaningful, tangible difference for a population in need. Others seek to improve their skills, understand their world, and develop experiences that will support their work in the future. This in turn could make them more open to altruistic and charitable activities at home, or have a specific connection with a ethno-cultural group in their home community. The benefits of actually going, of being out of ones element and being in another place, and “trying to make a difference”, are a good part of the reason that such participation continues to grow despite all the bad news out there.

In the same way, while much of the criticism has focused on the harms assumed by receiving populations abroad, one cannot deny the direct and indirect benefits such groups also receive. They do receive some form of charitable care, which, if properly provided, can make a meaningful difference. Diseases are cured, immunizations are given that last a lifetime, teaching around hygiene and the need to drink clean water prevents water-borne diseases from causing malnutrition and poor growth. In a numbers game, sure, its not so big, but for the few people that are helped, the course of their lives could be irrevocably changed for the better. 

The indirect benefits are obvious as well - greater awareness of the existence of the population; a connection to potential overseas advocates and supporters; for professional faculty in the developing world, links into major international institutions to conduct research, which can lead to access to resources and professional bonds. Much like teleconferencing and Skype can never replace the unspoken cues and intimacy of a face to face meeting, the difference between a faceless donor sending money in a digital transaction compared to the beauty of common humanity that arises from simple contact can also irrevocably change lives, for both good and bad. 

Human beings are forged on the relationships that they build, and relationships come from shared experiences and understanding. As Keats once said, “Nothing is ever real until it is experienced.” The new age phenomenon may be to thumb ones nose as short-term global health experiences abroad, but walking away from such experiences completely ignores the very real benefits that come from sharing food and drink with someone who was first a stranger and now a friend. It ignores the very real changes it makes in lives for all people on all sides. And it minimizes the immense potential that such trips have to make a difference, that if we find a way to make them work, that they are supported by some of the most passionate, altruistic volunteers trying to address very real needs that exist in our increasily fractious world today. 

Much like humanities, if we want to “develop a rational grace and energy in [our] conversation with the world around [us]”, we must take the opportunities that arise to better understand the world around us. There is no substitute for the bridges built by short-term global health experiences between communities and people. Villifying short-term global health experiences has resulted in anxiety and concern among young professionals and youth today who desire to make a difference in addressing a crucial need, but are now worried about doing something wrong.

Human curiosity, the desire to forge links, and simple empathy mean that short-term is very much here to stay. And thats a good thing. A world without any volunteers going on short-term experiences abroad would be just as tragic as treating todays status quo as a safe harbor. Working together, raising awareness, innovating, and researching this phenomenon, we can ensure that the very human benefits and relationships provided by such trips are matched by meaningful results for health and development. 

As our undergraduate students join the broader cohort of students abroad this semester, we hope theyll be able to enjoy that intangible human aspect of their foray into a different world. And, in turn, we hope that La Romana will benefit from the opportunity to understand the nature of Canadians and our societal values promoting charity and equity. 

It is high time for a more rational conversation on the complex nature of short-term volunteer efforts abroad. 

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