Following on from my previous little article about medical electives, here we run into that old debate-sparking favourite: voluntourism.I recently received an email from my university, which detailed the experiences of a woman studying population health and law who had begun her five-month volunteer placement in Vanuatu when Cyclone Pam hit. She was flung from her original intention of teaching English to primary school kids in Ambae, to assisting health personnel in Port Vila – her new role primarily focused on washing and dressing wounds, as well as packing and sending boxes of supplies to other parts of Vanuatu obliterated by the cyclone.1 To me, this story highlights an integral difference between what is referred to as voluntourism, and the volunteer work that benefits the local community and the volunteers themselves in equal measures.
these good intentions need to be channelled to an area where you’re not overstepping your clinical and academic boundaries as a medical student, but still having a positive impact on the people you care for…
There is very little doubt that volunteering abroad on electives, gap years or as a holiday project is a popular choice. The decision to undertake volunteer work combined with tourist activities in a new and exciting destination is endlessly appealing, especially for those who are inclined towards global health. The arguments against the placement of under-qualified personnel in a volunteer capacity in areas of need are numerous, though – and frankly it all becomes a bit disheartening when you’re just trying to do your bit to help people out. The New York Times published a rather scathing piece on voluntourism, but brought up some essential things to consider if planning on volunteering abroad, namely that placements of the voluntourism ilk “treat [the] receiving communities as passive objects of the visiting Westerner’s quest for saviourdom”2 – obviously a concept that well-intentioned young volunteers want to avoid.
What many people have agreed on is that these good intentions need to be channelled to an area where you’re not overstepping your clinical and academic boundaries as a medical student, but still having a positive impact on the people you care for. This involves time and research – annoying, but necessary so as to ensure the footprints you leave on the places you visit are kind ones.
I found a couple of great places to start – there’s a great radio discussion from a little while ago on the ABC here and an article from Moving Worlds here, which takes the stance of volunteering your skills over volunteering for the sake of memory-making. The Onion also popped a cheeky article up here – please don’t let this person be you, or we’ll need to have a private chat and your 2015 GHC experience will involve a lot of stern looks from our convenors.
Let me know how you’re planning on turning your volunteering time into something with lasting positive impact – where do you begin your search and what do you plan on doing? Me, I started local – helping out with small charities in Western Australia, which I knew were had long-term benefit for the communities we were reaching out to. Share your thoughts and experiences! Spin us a tale over a cup of tea, I can hear the kettle boiling now.
Much love and REGO IS SOON GET ON IT,
Article – Emily Earnshaw
Photo – Monica Leung