Volunteer Tourism – Redemption

Volunteer tourism: “volunteer[ing] in an organized way to undertake holidays that might involve aiding or alleviating the material poverty of some groups in society, the restoration of certain environments or research into aspects of society or environment” (Wearing 2001).

Or, as some less forgiving sources would put it, taking a pre-packaged vacation to a developing country, seeing the sights, doing a little bit of unpaid work, making yourself feel good, then pulling out and leaving the local situation more dependent than it used to be.

The FHF manager I was traveling with recognizes the phenomenon of “volunteer tourism” but still speaks highly of Western doctors not for their skill but for their attitude. He gives two examples:

(1) In China, when an optometrist comes across a young child he/she often asks the parent to hold the child up to eye level. In this case, a Western doctor knelt right down in front of the child to examine his eyes.

(2) Chinese doctors will rarely worry about another missed follow-up appointment. This Western doctor was concerned about a lack of follow-up and calling repeatedly to ascertain what went wrong.

They’re two simple examples, but they reveal a crucial point–there may be some intrinsic value to bringing Eastern and Western doctors together, even if all that appears to get accomplished is a little bit of aid work and a lot of sightseeing. Western doctors become valuable mentors because their students will pick up by their attitudes and hopefully be inspired to adopt them and pass them on.

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