Experts discuss the implications of global health volunteer programs

Annie L. Zhang

Almost a third of all graduating medical students in the U.S. have participated in a global health volunteer experience, and while most of the students reported that they were positive, many evaluations of the impact of these programs have been negative, according to a 2014 Medical Student Research Journal study.

This phenomenon was further explored at a panel hosted last Thursday by the Texas Undergraduate Research Journal, titled “Voluntourism: An Exploration into the Ethics of Global Charity.”

Panelists included Sera Bonds, CEO of Circle of Health International, Jessica Sager, director of development at Well Aware: Clean Water for Africa, Jacqui Hobbs, Peace Corps campus recruiter, and James Galbraith, professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

In order for global health and charity organizations to be successful, they must collaborate with locals from the area who know what works in that particular community, said Hobbs.

“We must consider what it means to be a volunteer,” Hobbs said. “Every volunteer should do a full community assessment to find the needs of a particular village and work with the village counterpart.”

A common criticism of global charity is its unsustainable practices, according to the aforementioned study. To address this issue, the panelists said that the most important factor is money for assisting local economies and funding local health professionals.

“We have people send us dirty underwear and worn T-shirts to bring to the local populations,” said Bonds, whose organization has been working closely with the migrant caravans in Central America. “(These communities don’t need that. They need healthcare providers embedded to provide care for not only the caravans, but the communities that these caravans are travelling through.”

Still, Bonds said she believes that her organization isn’t sustainable enough because it focuses on emergency rather than long-term responses.

“Our work in Syria is not sustainable,” Bonds said. “The thousands of dollars that are going into maintaining the last open hospital in Syria is not a sustainable, teachable moment but rather a survival moment.”

Sager, whose organization focuses on the long-term development of water sources by building water wells, said that organizations like hers must implement follow-up studies and design new methods based on the first-year results.

“We want to see success over time of course, but the reality is that more than 60 percent of water wells fail within the first year,” Sager said.

The panelists said that the common perception held by some people is that they can improve a country’s health care or economy in a matter of weeks or months, which is ultimately detrimental to perceptions of global health and charity organizations. Rather, Bonds said people should continually contribute even after the volunteer period.

“It’s a selfish thing to go to a country for two weeks and think you can make a big impact,” Bond said.

Galbraith said that global health and charity organizations are necessary for development.

“While long-term development is carried out by the people who live in a particular community, as well as a political and social system that can sustain it, the development of society has shown that you need to have a wide range of institutional roles in play,” Galbraith said. “Minimizing one or another is a mistake. because — fundamentally — there’s no single form that meets every need.”