Medical Voluntourism and Our Civic Duties As Students of Geneseo

In class a few weeks ago, we were lucky to have Dr. Muench and Dr. Kennison speak with our class about their experiences running different study abroad trips and the issues related to voluntourism. Voluntourism is the act of conducting volunteer work while abroad and was something my group briefly talked about yesterday in class when writing our mission statement. As we have come to learn, voluntourism can be a very dangerous practice, especially when the help being conducted involves medical treatment. Initially there was concern that some trips offered by the Geneseo Study Abroad department entailed such types of medical voluntourism after Sabrina and Jenna addressed trip offerings that seemed to involve medical voluntourism. Learning of how “the international volunteer placement industry (as a whole) opens the door to potentially disastrous outcomes” (Sullivan) by Sullivan was unsettling especially when it seemed there was a chance that Geneseo students might be directly contributing to this issue. Thus, this opportunity was unique in that it provided some clarity on how Geneseo programs are generally run and also allowed us to get a better understanding of how volunteer work is properly conducted abroad. As we would come to learn though, just because these professors ensured no harm to local populations didn’t mean that the places they were visiting were exempt from the dangers of voluntourism.


My group was fortunate to speak with Dr. Muench who spoke about her experiences abroad in Haiti and Ghana. Amongst the many things Dr. Muench talked about, she specifically talked about the precautionary steps that she takes every time she goes abroad to ensure a beneficial and safe interaction between students and locals. This means providing a hands-on learning experience while also having informed consent from villagers on the help students provide. She explained that none of her students conduct medical procedures and that to get students to look at the people they are helping as people and not just test subjects, that she teaches and applies the concept of interdependence to their interactions. Interdependence is the reliance of two or more organisms on each other and is a term taught by Dr. Muench in her introduction biology lecture. In her own way, she has made students see this interaction “both and” benefits wise and is something I personally found to be a great idea. I personally was taught on the topic by Dr. Muench three years ago in her introductory biology lecture and seeing her apply this term topic to a real-life situation outside of the class was cool. Although it was relieving to hear about how Geneseo students provide consensual and meaningful help,  it was disheartening to learn of the few instances where Dr. Muench witnessed another group of doctors conducting work that could potentially involve issues we discussed in class.

Dr. Muench said that while in Haiti she did observe a medical clinic that was operating in a manner that might harm locals rather than help them. She said this was seen when she observed a health clinic run by an American group that group brought in retired American doctors to treat locals. She said there was a possibility that the way their organization was structured might exacerbate issues for locals by only providing temporary care due to the fact that the doctors treating locals were only there as long as their vacation was scheduled for. Dr. Muench said she also questioned the organizations ability to properly help due to the fact that the organization was primarily stationed in the United States. Dr. Muench said she realized this possibly issue but said that she elected not to say anything to the clinic leader. That she just chose to observe what was going on “rather than do something at the time”. Although I empathize with Dr. Muench on her uncertainty of the situation and how to react in the moment, I am not sure I would have done the same as she did in hind sight.


Trying to pin point the exact misdoings of the clinic would be hard just based on an initial observation; trying to have a conversation with the clinic head about those issues would be equally if not more difficult. I know that I would not be qualified to have that conversation in the moment unless there was a blatant error in treatment I could observe. With the lack of knowledge I have on proper medical practices and how clinics run in general I wouldn’t even know where to start. However, unlike myself, Dr. Muench has been around clinics in the past like the AIDs clinic she visits in Ghana and knows more of the way a clinic should function than I do. Further, as someone who conducts research, volunteers abroad on a consistent basis and is aware of the issues of voluntourism, I feel that it would been nice to hear that she followed up on the issue possibly later on be it through an email or even phone call to the organization headquarters.


I want to clarify that in no way am I faulting Dr. Muench for how she handled the situations as I would have reacted in the same way initially. However, I personally would have made an attempt to check with the organization that they were aware of the dangers of medical voluntourism and would ask what precautionary steps they take to ensure such issues don’t occur in their clinic. Although I don’t have the full scope of the issue and might be over analyzing this, I do think that not doing anything was the best choice. This is especially after going over our schools mission statement and talking about how part of our civic responsibility entails promoting ethical local and global citizenship which in my mind means educating others on the issues we are aware of to try and prevent them from continuing. With this in mind I personally think that as person who is aware of the dangers of voluntourism, that it is my responsibility to do something about it when I potentially see it. We all talk in class about how horrific and unimaginable the actions of voluntourism can be but if we are just a bystander to it when we see it potentially happening aren’t we just perpetuating this cycle? I think we have an obligation to curb these practices and in doing the right thing we must not only make sure we ourselves are acting in the right way, but that we are bringing to light other’s misdoings. Otherwise if we don’t then what was the point of taking this class and learning anything we have this semester?


In all I felt that the conversation my group had with Dr. Muench was productive and it was good to hear about the help her and her students do provide. As talked about in class, the solution to the problems of medical voluntourism is not to just stop volunteering. The fact of the matter is that people in other counties and even parts of our own country like Puerto Rico, are in desperate need of volunteer help. In many cases it is well within our power to help fix these issues and we should do so in a respectful and truly beneficial manner. This is easier said than done and as put by Dr. Muench “the decontextualized issues (stemming from voluntourism) seem easy to fix when in reality they are not.” Providing adequate care to people both abroad and at home is hard but as she and others show it can be done. There will always be miss steps along the way and we won’t always get it right but armed with what we have learned from this class I truly think that all of us are able to more properly live up to our school’s mission statement and have a positive impact on our communities by curbing issues we have discussed in class such as medical voluntourism.

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