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What Inspired The New International Volunteer Movement

The idea for The New International Volunteer grabbed onto me in 2013 and never let go. That summer I studied abroad and volunteered in the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala. I got ill and decided to visit an international volunteer-run medical clinic to get help. The American doctors at the clinic volunteered in Guatemala for a week at a time through a church program. They saw as many patients as possible each day during the week and used a translator to communicate with patients. The doctors brought medicine with them and donations of used clothing. Each patient left the clinic with a diagnosis by a volunteer doctor, all the medicine they would need to treat the ailment, and an article of used clothing.

While at the clinic, I chatted with two doctors and other volunteers who gave out clothes. I asked them why they volunteered and what they hoped to accomplish during their week at the clinic. Each of the doctors said they wanted to help at the clinic because they saw unmet needs in the community’s healthcare. The volunteers in charge of handing out clothing stated that they wanted to give back. Despite these noble goals, I learned, from the patient’s perspective, that the volunteers needed more than their best intentions to make the volunteer work successful.

At the clinic, I was misdiagnosed, and could not help but wonder if the clinic doctors misdiagnosed other patients. Did they make these mistakes because they did not learn about common, location-specific ailments before arriving in Guatemala? If so, it could be easily remedied with preparation.

Then I went to the Guatemalan- run pharmacy across the street and asked the pharmacist his opinion on the volunteer-run clinic. He said it cost him a lot of business because patients no longer came to the pharmacy after going to the clinic. They did not need to since the doctors gave patients the medicine they needed before they walked out the door. Most families could afford medications in this area of Guatemala, so cost did not prevent most people from purchasing medicine, but the clinic provided it regardless.

A few streets over, many Guatemalans made a living by selling used clothes that they bought in bundles from donation stores in the US. As the volunteers gave away clothes at the clinic, they took away business from the Guatemalan clothing sellers. The clothes sold for extremely reasonable prices, so cost did not inhibit people from buying clothes in the market. While at the clinic, I asked several women who brought their sick children there what they thought about the clothing donations. They said they did not need the clothes but only came to the clinic because they did not like the quality of services at the local hospital.
Translation caused the last major problem at the clinic. Two doctors worked in separate exam rooms but only had one translator. Neither doctor spoke Spanish, so without a translator in the room, the doctors missed translations of vital medical facts that could help make a correct diagnosis. Additionally, they could not address any concerns patients had without the translator present. Doctor-patient communication and understanding required a second translator or for the doctors to speak Spanish themselves.

As I reflected on my unexpected clinic experience, it seemed that the doctors and other volunteers had the best of intentions but needed to change the way they carried them out. The quality needed to match their desire to help. Both matter in international volunteering. The doctors did a good job identifying a real need the community had, they just did not meet that need fully and effectively. What if international volunteers think not only about the needs they try to meet but also about the consequences, good or bad, that come from the way they meet those needs? The book The New International Volunteer: A Hands-On Guide to Sustainable & Inclusive Development was born from these questions.

That day when I walked out of the clinic gates, with my inaccurate pills in hand, passing a line of Guatemalans waiting to get medical care, I knew there had to be a better way. My own journey in writing The New International Volunteer meant finding out how to volunteer the right way, so that the next time when I go volunteer internationally again, I will be doing it right. And that the next time when I see volunteers trying to connect their goals to their actions and results, I can guide them through it. So that the patients who needed healthcare that day can have volunteers who excel in running quality clinics, while also strengthening the local economy. The first step to changing international volunteering begins with realizing what needs to be changed. The second includes learning how to carry out those changes. That is the New International Volunteer movement in a nutshell.

To learn more, please check out my book, The New International Volunteer: A Hands-On Guide to Sustainable & Inclusive Development, available here. For additional resources, visit my author website and blog here.

The opinions in this article are my own.
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