In March, I went to Panama for a week as part of a medical Global Brigade and helped run free clinics for various communities. During that week, about 20 other students from my university and I stayed at a compound, prepared posters and presentations to give to patients and children, packed medication for our makeshift pharmacy, and practiced taking vitals. Each day, we’d spend seven-ish hours at the clinic, taking vitals, recording patient history, helping out with dental procedures and eye exams, observing medical consultations, and reminding kids to brush their teeth. The communities were so welcoming and it was extremely gratifying to feel like we actually made an impact. I learned so much.
The entire time, and especially when I came back, I had this guilt gnawing at me. I would tell people exactly what I told you but would have these complicated thoughts eating away at my conscience. Seeing as it’s June, you can tell that I put off dissecting these thoughts for months. But I’m sitting in a Barnes and Noble now and can’t watch Netflix without being judged so I figured it was time to face the music.
First, my motivations for getting involved in the brigade. I think I applied to be a part of the brigade in the fall because I was gung-ho about global health and thought that there was no better way to practice global health than to go abroad and help people. Noble, right? It also came from the fact that I was seeing my peers do amazing things in their respective fields and I felt that I should catch-up and do something cool with my time. I justified it to myself because I was an EMT and planned on minoring in Spanish — I felt like I could really be useful providing patient-care in a Spanish-speaking country. Yes, some of my motivations were altruistic. But like most, dare I say all, good deeds, it was selfish as well.
I applied, got in, and was super excited. That’s when I found out about the price-tag of the experience. The group was supposed to fundraise to lower the costs, and while that helped a little, it was still a hefty price to pay out of pocket when most local volunteering opportunities come at no cost. This is a characteristic of voluntourism: think traveling abroad to volunteer.
According to a 2016 New York Times article, it’s a booming industry. In fact, a 2008 study that surveyed 300 voluntourism organizations stated that about 1.6 million people collectively spend over $2 billion annually to “volunteer on vacation.” But maybe instead of paying for a flight ticket, the money could have been better spent as a donation to organizations actively and consistently impacting change.
What I’ve realized is that voluntourism comes from a ghastly amount of privilege. It has to mean something that rather than donating the money, volunteers are packing up and setting up temporary shop in remote villages to do things that maybe locals could have done better with the right support and infrastructure. It’s almost like a new-age version of white man’s burden — suddenly upper-class individuals from developed countries are going abroad to third-world countries and impoverished communities to act as saviors for a week. Considering how well off we are, we can.
Before going to Panama, I had this naive mentality that I was going to help people who desperately needed help. When I got there and actually started speaking to mothers and brothers and grandparents, I realized that I could not have been more wrong. The people living in Punaloso and Arimae, the communities we were working in, were so happy and full of life. They had beautiful families, jobs they were proud of, and dignified elders. Yes, the medication and glasses we gave them were useful, but we were by no means saving their lives.
When it comes to all kinds of volunteering and service, I think there’s a difference between serving out of pity and serving with respect. If we recognize and let go of the savior complex and focus on understanding the communities we serve, we can serve in a way that maintains the dignity and pride of everyone involved. We’ll learn more as volunteers and the people we’re working with will also be more receptive to whatever services we can offer.
I just can’t believe I had to go abroad to realize that.
I don’t regret spending my money or spring break being a “voluntourist.” Within one week, my Spanish improved exponentially and I learned so much about what it means to practice medicine. I bonded with members of the communities and made little kids laugh while their parents got their blood pressures checked. I got to teach kids sayings about hygiene that they proudly repeated back to me and I saw a woman’s face absolutely light up when I said her new prescription sunglasses made her look like a movie star. I’ll remember the people I met and the things I learned for a lifetime.
I think voluntourism should be presented as more of an educational opportunity for the volunteers than a gift to the communities being helped. It’s a privilege and that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
When it comes to global health, there is so much value in going abroad to learn more about healthcare systems. You can’t compare first-hand experience to reading or learning in a classroom, and the perspectives gained can be applied to our own communities at home and the ways we address health equity all over the world.
At the same time, we have to be honest with ourselves and realistic about our motivations and the quality of help we’re providing. Rather than diving head-first into building latrines and setting up free clinics or whatever seems like the most obvious way of impacting change, we should first respect and listen to the communities we want to help. Once we genuinely understand their needs and their systems, we can use our privilege to lift them up in ways that are long-term and effective.