After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, there was an influx of medical volunteers and desire to help in such a traumatic event. While this displays admirable initiative, there are many factors that go into international medical volunteerism outside of the desire to do good work that require experience and understanding of local culture. In one study, co-authored by Richard Gosselin of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, almost two-thirds of the surgeons who volunteered in Haiti had no prior disaster experience.
When a nation has declared a natural disaster, “disaster relief” is primarily in the first 24 to 72 hours following the event. In this situation, outside aid must be completely independent of local resources; providing their own medicines, staff, food, water, sometimes electricity and anything else needed to perform their role. The troubled area cannot be depended on or depleted of remaining resources when providing assistance. Many medical volunteers do not recognize or have the capacity to provide these resources when traveling to provide assistance; military and governmental organizations, primarily, are able to.
As days, weeks and months go by, the focus is on humanitarian aid. Many organizations will have developed a base for care and semi-permanent facilities. At this point, medical volunteers are able to connect and work with a well-experienced and community-integrated group to efficiently provide care. In this setting, doctors are able to use resources immediately available to them to perform surgery in a safe and effective way for the nation in need.
With social media and news outlets, charitable organizations and medical providers have expressed the consequences of “inexperienced” medical volunteers. Questions we need to ask ourselves are:
When are we doing more harm than good?
Is this the best use of our skills and time?
How can we avoid recreating the wheel?
What can I learn before going into a culture completely different from my own?
Whether you are a community volunteer or a volunteer with a specific skill set, it is crucial to consider these questions when helping in disaster relief or humanitarian aid.
In the coming months, IVUmed is performing two surgical workshops in Haiti, one in Pignon and one in Deschapelles. Both the leaders and many of the volunteers going on these trips have been at least once a year for the past two years. This has given us the opportunity to develop relationships and partner with other organizations, such as Project Haiti and well established hospitals in the region.
To hear an informative podcast on the consequences of volunteering, please click here: The Tragic Consequences of Crisis Volunteering, by Amy Costello