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Interesting Reflections on Working Abroad

This NYT piece on “voluntourism” provides a nice if brief series of discussions on 

One of the “pro” voices offers up this concluding paragraph, which captures their essential point well:

We see nothing wrong with volunteers enjoying their work, so long as it yields tangible and enduring results. I doubt our volunteers confuse their intense Global Builders work with “voluntourism,” but it does seem to provide intrinsic joy. As long as they come home exhausted, we’re happy, too. And I also doubt that any child who has had help moving from a shack to a safe and decent home spends a lot of time thinking how selfish volunteers are.”

To this, my reply would be in part a link to an NGO that I am part of, Giving What We Can – the focus of which is the relief of extreme poverty via evidence-based intervention. That to me is the heart of the issue with the above statement – it is all well and good that a house get built, but the notion that volunteers from another country are the most cost-effective way of doing this is, on the face of it, risible. Intangible benefits may well be present, and perhaps such volunteers become more inclined to provide ongoing support of some variety (financial, political – or, most likely, further volunteering), though I’m not aware of data for this.  But it is readily evident that the money spent getting someone through such an experience would be better spent on hiring local builders at a good wage if the goal is truly to maximize the benefit to that community.

This is not to say that I’m against such things across the board, particularly as many of our global health activities pretty clearly benefit the global North participants more than the communities they come to serve. But we do have to strive to be honest about the benefits to ourselves (be they personal, spiritual, or career) from our global health work, and about the amount of true benefit we are providing to our colleagues and partners abroad.

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