The ben­e­fits of vol­un­tourism

The Western Star - - EDITORIAL -

Vol­un­tourism has been crit­i­cized based on the be­lief that the tourism as­pect over­pow­ers the hu­man­i­tar­ian spirit, and the be­lief that money in­vested into ac­com­mo­dat­ing vol­un­teers could be bet­ter in­vested into hir­ing pro­fes­sion­als.

As I have par­tic­i­pated in vol­un­tourism my­self, I feel the need to share my jour­ney with Global Brigades Hon­duras to en­cour­age health vol­un­tourism in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

Global Brigades is an or­ga­ni­za­tion that pro­vides re­lief to Hon­duras, among other places, through a range of health ini­tia­tives.

Our vol­un­teer team had 40 univer­sity stu­dents and we were com­plet­ing a med­i­cal, den­tal and pub­lic health bri­gade. Our roles in­cluded as­sis­tance in triage, phar­macy, tooth ex­trac­tions and den­tal fill­ings, op­tom­e­try, gy­ne­col­ogy, ed­u­cat­ing chil­dren about proper hy­giene, and build­ing la­trines and ven­ti­lated stoves. In ad­di­tion to stu­dents, our team con­sisted of a small num­ber of ma­sons for each la­trine and stove, 4 doc­tors, 3 den­tists, 1 op­tometrist, 1 gy­ne­col­o­gist and 2 phar­ma­cists.

Over four days, our team vis­ited two com­mu­ni­ties, treated 1,173 pa­tients and com­pleted 7 la­trines and stoves.

So, could we have hired pro­fes­sion­als to carry the work­load?

We raised $20,000 col­lec­tively to cover med­i­ca­tions, sup­plies and ac­com­mo­da­tions. It would be un­rea­son­able to ex­pect that $20,000 could pro­vide enough staff to con­sult and treat 1,173 pa­tients in four days, es­pe­cially con­sid­er­ing the cur­rent work­force in the Hon­duran health care sys­tem. Na­tion­ally, there are 10.1 doc­tors and 10 nurses per 10,000 in­hab­i­tants. As a ref­er­ence, the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion (WHO) rec­om­mends 25 doc­tors and 50 nurses. Al­though the WHO does not rec­om­mend a num­ber of den­tists, Hon­duras has a rel­a­tively low num­ber of den­tists (0.2 per 10,000 in­hab­i­tants).

Physi­cians are also con­cen­trated in ur­ban cen­tres, leav­ing 18 per cent of the coun­try with­out ac­cess to health care. Thus, in ad­di­tion to pay­ment for their ser­vices, trans­porta­tion for pro­fes­sion­als would also have to be ac­counted for, and any non-Span­ish speak­ing pro­fes­sional would re­quire a trans­la­tor on-site.

I can also tell you that from my ex­pe­ri­ence, like other “vol­un­tourists,” I brought back a col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs, sto­ries and me­mories. But is that not the point? Does the tourism nec­es­sar­ily take away from the vol­un­teer­ing? I took a piece of their vi­brant cul­ture and put it on dis­play for friends, fam­ily and col­leagues. Some of those peo­ple went on to com­plete their own projects with Global Brigades and sim­i­lar or­ga­ni­za­tions. What is un­avoid­able is the fact that our sto­ries con­nect each other, and through the sto­ries brought back through vol­un­tourism, we con­nect each other to the em­pow­er­ment that lies within hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism.

Peers al­ways ask if I feel like I made a dif­fer­ence af­ter my jour­ney to Hon­duras af­ter I share my sto­ries. I tell them the story of when I gave a pair of glasses to an el­derly woman, who came back the next day to find me. Tears filled her eyes as she spoke to me. I re­ceived as­sis­tance from a nearby trans­la­tor, who in­formed me that the woman can see her grand­chil­dren’s faces for the first time. Yes, I feel like I made a dif­fer­ence.

Al­though pro­fes­sion­als are bet­ter ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing help, pro­fes­sion­als are not al­ways read­ily avail­able. There­fore, we need to keep in mind that we are able to de­liver aid in many forms. We also need to keep in mind that health pro­mo­tion is an on­go­ing process, and no in­di­vid­ual bri­gade is go­ing to solve ev­ery health is­sue im­me­di­ately. How­ever, through health vol­un­tourism, we in­vest in the po­ten­tial of prob­lem solv­ing. Com­mu­ni­ties in Hon­duras are ben­e­fit­ing from Global Brigades and other vol­un­teer-based projects, and with more vol­un­tourism comes faster and bet­ter re­sults.

Michael McWhirter, St. John’s Orig­i­nally from Cor­ner Brook

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