ghU Recap: Voluntourism

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By Amy Lin

Last quarter, the ghU sessions delved into the topics of gender and sexuality. While the sessions were empowering and fun as a woman, it was easy to get swept up in the feminist movement and start saying things like “gender is a social construct” and “down with the patriarchy.” The ghUs addressed these topics, but went even further in discussing the surrounding social environment. We talked about the personal issues with acceptance and social norms, and then went on to shed a light on the larger implications of the inequalities, especially with regards to access to healthcare and other rights.

While ghU’s always create dialogue about these important issues, the discussion often feels like it ends when the meeting ends. With our new focus on advocacy, it’s exciting to understand the beginnings, principles, and history of activism; in addition, it’s inspiring to be able to see the potential influence and change that student activists can bring to campus, and even beyond campus. .

We started the quarter with the focus on voluntourism, a hot-button topic that was sure to generate discussion due to GlobeMed members' interest in global health. With our foundation rooted in the partnership model and making sure that our partners don’t just “listen to the donors,” exploring advocacy in the health field provoked a lot of questions regarding the benefits and shortcomings of voluntourism. During the debate, a lot of the issues raised were with regards to the White Savior Complex, the inherent power dynamic, the lack of sustainable support, and the limited opportunities in-country growth and development.

While the intentions of service trips may come from a good place and the relief provided may have significant short-term impact, it’s comparable to putting a single band-aid on a festering, gaping wound. The band-aid isn’t going to be helping that much, but it’s better than completely ignoring the problem. The voluntourism programs do succeed in one area: raising awareness for the needs in certain areas. While volunteers and tourists are being sent to these areas, these programs need to ensure that their participants are responsibly and respectfully engaging in these communities.

As short-term relief is being provided, more discussions need to be had about how to create self-sustainable programs that can promote growth, development, and eventually independence from foreign aid. It’s naive to think that this can happen overnight or within a few years. Government, policies, and infrastructure all need to come in play; however, if all the innovative organizations and groups keep implementing responsible actions abroad, then their cumulative  efforts can equip people in the communities to create change from the bottom up.

With the upcoming ghUs, we are going to be shifting our focus to student activists and organizations on our very own campus. Learning from our peers, we can use the skills and lessons they’ve learned and implement them to advocate for not only GlobeMed related global health issues but also other important causes that need advocating. Amy is a member of the ghU committee at Northwestern.

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