My Medical Voluntourism “Dilemma”

In class, we discussed different aspects of medical voluntourism and how certain elements can be detrimental towards low-income countries. Recently, I attended a GOLD workshop revolving around planning service trips and I made a “both/and” connection. It’s great to see young people eager to help communities in need; however, such organizations lack the sensitivity needed to actually make a positive difference in a foreign nation.Medical voluntourism is suppose to encourage young people, especially those eager to progress in the medical world, to travel to foreign countries that might need assistance. The countries these students travel to are less fortunate than in terms of medical resources needed to provide for the locals. When students travel to such places, they are given hands-on tasks and such experiences are suppose to benefit both the person being treated and the individual conducting said procedure. However, these medical voyages have been know to be controversial, in the sense of the level of inexperience and overestimation of these organizations and the arrogance of the volunteers. By that I mean these students are practically children (adolescents at most) and they aren’t trained to carry out certain tasks asked of them, such as deliver a baby or aid in a life-threatening surgery. Also, when these host companies take groups to low-income countries, they view themselves as the hero figure, saving the locals from their own unhealthy upbringings and cultures.

After educating myself on this self-fulfilling, yet societal damaging practice, I started to question my own past experiences with studying abroad. For my junior year of high school, I studied abroad in France and Spain for ten days. This trip wasn’t aimed at bettering a community in need. It was educational in the sense that we were able to witness and appreciate another culture for what it was through language, art, food, etc. As harmless as this all sounds, I still found a parallel to the cons of medical voluntourism. I would ask myself, “what if my presence in this country is offensive/derogatory towards their culture?” or “does my epistemophilia for the culture portray me as a nuisance towards the locals?” In the end, I can’t say that I’ve experienced the White savior complex when I studied abroad because 1) my trip supervisor actually educated us on the culture we were traveling to for months and 2) I traveled for a cultural experience rather than a medical one. Recently, however, I experienced a sense of temporary doubt in the college because I thought they were enforcing the idea of “superiority” to developing countries they travel to as well.

Earlier I mentioned a GOLD workshop I attended revolving around how to plan service trips. This workshop was presented by Mr. Garth Freeman and Dr. Tom Matthews (the creator of GOLD) to inform students about Livingston CARES and the opportunities their organization provides for people to help out in areas devastated by natural disasters. From what we’ve learned in class, I assumed that they were going to follow the same “White savior” trend like other service organizations portray. To my surprise, Dr. Matthews and Mr. Freeman condemned such behavior and explained how they distance themselves from host companies that have a tendency of exploiting a wholesome opportunity for personal gain. They denounced such treatment they’ve witnessed in the past, mistakenly believing that the host company they were working with didn’t have a biased agenda to “make a difference”, in terms of the organization’s reputation instead of the struggling community they were working in. At the end of the workshop, I got the chance to speak with Dr. Matthews about the upcoming service trips that focus on hurricane relief. Even though their group doesn’t necessarily deal with medical procedures per se, it was still refreshing to hear about a nonprofit organization that’s purpose is to treat the needs of those stranded and suffering in their own community.

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