What Volunteering Abroad Taught Me About Sustainability

Virginia Commonwealth University
United States

If you like to travel, but you also want to help people, volunteering abroad can seem like the perfect combination of the two. But even though a lot of people choose to volunteer abroad and feel like they are really being of help, they may unintentionally be doing more harm than good. After going on a medical-service trip in Southeast Asia, I realized that not all volunteering abroad is sustainable. I went on a two week trip out of the country last summer, and helped set up pop-up clinics in rural areas to dispense medication to sick individuals. The organization with which I volunteered had bought medication for the patients, and also contacted local physicians to help us on our clinic days.

Right away, I could see that there were a lot of issues with the way the organization had planned out our pop-up clinics. There were four different stations - shadowing, intake, vitals and pharmacy. In the shadowing station, students had the opportunity to observe local physicians as they prescribed medications to their patients from a list. While I was shadowing, I realized that a lot of the medications on the list were things that were over-the-counter in the United States. Almost all of the patients left with vitamins, some left with antibiotics, but most of the patients left without their conditions being treated. I remember seeing an older woman with a mole that the physician thought looked cancerous, and found out that the doctors had prescribed her vitamins and sent her away. It wasn’t because they didn’t care, it was because they had nothing to give her. She had sacrificed a day of pay and traveled far from where she lives to get to the pop-up clinic, but was being sent away with nothing that would help her. The worst thing to come out of the pop-up clinics is the fact that a lot of the people that are prescribed vitamins and antibiotics think of them as a cure-all. I heard horror stories about children who were very sick with viral fevers, but their parents just gave them antibiotics instead of taking them to the hospital and the children ended up dying.

Another cause for concern is the fact that the local communities are liable to develop a dependency on foreign aid and don’t invest in the creation of local medical care centers. The growth of the communities is stunted, and the efforts of the volunteers ends up hurting the people they would like to help. Additionally, most of the students on the trip were not qualified to assist in medical treatment or effectively communicate with the patients. Few of the volunteers were fluent in the language of the country, so translators had to do most of the work. This slowed everything to the point where translators started asking students to step aside so they could do their stations for them, and the volunteers ended up with nothing to do. If the volunteers themselves did complete the tasks, they took five times as much time to get patient information. This meant that patients who had traveled far from their homes to get to the pop-up clinic were left waiting at the clinic for longer than they needed to be. Keep in mind that many had jobs that they left in order to get to the clinic, or they abandoned responsibilities in their households - it can be very inconvenient.

Overall, I think that the volunteering trip abroad was more harmful than beneficial to the community. The only people who really benefited were the patients who had a bacterial disease and got antibiotics that they needed. The other patients were given vitamins and left without having their conditions treated. But despite all the flaws of the program, I did gain some things from the trip. I learned about another culture. I learned how to more effectively communicate nonverbally, and I made a lot of really close friends. I don’t think I would go on another service trip abroad without fully looking into its sustainability, but I will say that I had a lot of fun, and I am glad to be more knowledgeable about the complex nature of delivering healthcare.

photo by Eleanor Ritzman