Oh the places you’ll go, and the harms you’ll do?

sun, fun and oh yes, "work"

At the end of November the Working Group on Ethics Guidelines for Global Health Training (WEIGHT) produced guidance for those going overseas in various global health capacities.  This was recently published in the BMJ and is an absolute must read for any academics, researchers, interns and I would add volunteers, going abroad with the intentions of broadening their own perspectives, developing their training, helping others, collecting data for fieldwork, etc.

Reading through the harms, I can’t help but cringe.  I am, unfortunately, guilty of the “parachute research” they refer to in the article, where “the resource rich investigator …comes to a developing country, “parachutes” in for a research study, extracts the data needed, and returns home” (BMJ 2010;341:c6860).  My time spent in Nambia and South Africa at the end of my undergraduate sounds uncomfortably familiar to their example of what not to do, which is where the “investigator does the data analysis and laboratory work back home and builds little to no local research capacity”.   I would like to believe that I did help the organizations I worked with, including helping develop their interests and skills in research, and help the exchange of cultural compentency, but perhaps that would be naive.  Consequently, I think every institution sending people overseas should at least consider the balance of benefits and harms outlined in this document.  I have certainly reaped the benefits, but  have I also caused some harms along the way?

This article is also timely in light of the surge in “voluntourism”, when one can volunteer/work and tour, to “combine pleasure and purpose on a trip that will change your life and a village in Africa” for about $5000 US (www.alumnitravel.utoronto.ca).  For example, this enticing trip to build a school in Kenya is current on offer by my alma mater, The University of Toronto.

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