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Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering, Review and Reflections

Author: Tapati Dutta
27 February 2018

Hoping to Help, The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering by Prof. Judith N. Lasker, is a comprehensive book about global health volunteering: how it currently operates, its benefits and drawbacks, and how it could contribute effectively to the volunteers and communities they serve.

Lasker’s findings are based on (i) extensive interviews with staff members in host countries organizations, leaders of sponsor organizations, and volunteers; (ii) a national survey of sponsors; and (iii) participant observation.  

Bruce Lee says, "Knowing is not enough, you must apply; willing is not enough, you must do”. Lasker’s book reiterates the philosophies of learning-by-doing with host communities as inherent to imbibing intercultural competencies and shared austerity among volunteers. Continuing on the increasing investments on global volunteering, the book describes these trips being perceived as ‘altruistic means’ to ‘give back’ and ‘make a difference’ to vulnerable communities, while volunteers hope to learn on socio-economic and health issues prevalent in the host communities.

That said, Hoping to Help brings up critical debates on the overall effectiveness of global health volunteering. It questions whether universities, corporations, non-profit and faith-based organizations from developed and wealthier nations who sponsor these volunteering missions, are doing more harm than help to the poorer and vulnerable host communities? In this context, Lasker weaves ethno-relative imperatives, questions if these missions are a new form of colonialism and sarcastically describes ‘volunteering’ as ‘volun-touring’ to foreign countries.

I would agree with the book that despite the huge investments made, it is difficult to identify any state-of-the-art global health volunteering model. Dearth of concerted and integrated efforts by sponsor organizations, and lack of democratic governance in most host communities could be macro-level barriers to building such exemplars. Challenges also lie in the sheer differential conceptualization of aspects like ‘development’, ‘help’ and ‘sustainability’ between the global-North volunteers/sponsoring organizations and the global-South host communities.

Nuances of gender dynamics between the community and the female volunteer is an area, which needs greater attention, both in this book and also in the broader discussion of global health volunteering. These could range from personal safety concerns of a female volunteer while traveling alone, to challenges of engaging in empowered discussions with male stakeholders in the community/host families and host institutions.

Despite these caveats, I would acknowledge the finest of community-volunteer relationships as a global health volunteer myself, in Uganda and Kenya. In my opinion the relationship happens in the most free-flowing way when volunteers as much the organizing bodies are:

  1. candid and transparent to self and communities,
  2. open to integrate pedagogic learning with popular knowledge and
  3. realize the socio-cultural sensitivities and differences between the host-community and the volunteer’s parent community.

Being a woman from a developing country has also enabled me to relate and empathise with the tales of women in these communities - reflecting journeys of effort, reticence, and resilience.

In conclusion, I would remark that Hoping to Help was not just like reading another book. Rather, it was a sojourn on service-learning, an emotion, a passion. While a thirst for adventure and bringing a difference to lesser-privileged populations arises out of our noblest cores, yet, realizing the mission of global health volunteering will need more integrated commitment of stakeholders as well as North-South and South-South dialogues!

Tapati Dutta is a social scientist in community health, promoting research and uptake of HIV and cervical cancer prevention methods and vaccines, alongside advocating for community-responsive prevention policies. Currently she is pursuing her doctoral studies at Indiana University School of Public Heath, USA.

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