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LETTER: The benefits of voluntourism

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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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