Creating Alignment between Host Community Preferences and Sponsor Practices on Short-Term Volunteer Health Trips

Judith Lasker, Lehigh University

A growing response to the harsh reality of global health disparities is the short-term volunteer trip. Sometimes referred to as short-term medical missions (STMMs), such trips involve hundreds of thousands of people annually traveling from wealthier countries to poorer countries for a week or two of health-related activities (Lasker 2016). This practice has been increasingly subject to debate between those who believe it is very valuable in addressing unmet needs and those who consider it a form of colonialism or are worried that it is plagued by unethical practices. Yet there has been very little effort to describe the characteristics of this enterprise or to evaluate it in terms of benefits and harms. Additionally, there has been scant attention in this debate to the perspectives of people in the host countries.

This paper reports on two surveys of STMM sponsor organizations based in the U.S. in order to identify common organisational practices. It then compares these practices to the preferences expressed in a survey of host community leaders and interviews with staff who work with volunteers in host countries. One survey of STMM sponsors includes 177 faith-based, educational, and NGO organisations; the second, distributed to Catholic Health Association members, includes 157 trip organisers. The survey and interviews of host country staff members included 104 individuals in 17 countries (Lasker 2016; CHA, 2015).

There were striking contrasts between reported organisational practices and host country staff preferences with regard to length of stay and recruitment and preparation of volunteers. The vast majority of volunteer trips are two weeks or less, while staff working with volunteers voiced a strong consensus that trips should last a minimum of three weeks in order for them to be valuable. The majority of organisations reported minimal selectivity in choice of volunteers and brief preparation, with a focus on practical travel advice. Host staff expressed a strong desire for choosing volunteers who have skills and humility and preparing them in language, culture, and in the nature of the projects to be carried out. Findings also revealed a lack of evaluation by sponsor organisations of the benefits of STMMs either to host communities or volunteers. Host community staff generally valued the arrival of volunteers but identified desirable qualities of programs and volunteers that would make the most difference.

Reasons for the disparities are discussed. Results suggest that changes in sponsoring organization practices, specifically in length of stay and selection and preparation of volunteers, could greatly enhance the impact of short-term volunteer trips.

Venue: Room 0.16, UNU-MERIT, Boschstraat 24, Maastricht

Date: 22 June 2016

Time: 10:00 - 11:00  CET