Good Intentions and Murky Ethics

By Noelle Sullivan and Nicole Berry

According to Volunteer World, an online international volunteer placement platform, “International voluntary work plays a key role in delivering and implementing the Sustainable Development Goals,” such that “Volunteer World provides the chance to become active and help reach the SDG Goal #03 Good Health And Well-Being.” For prospective volunteers wanting to work in health facilities, available placement countries are predominantly located in the global South. Hosting health facilities appear remarkably similar in their need for foreign helpers willing to travel, regardless of whether they are in Tanzania or Guatemala.

The proliferation of online clinical placement companies like Volunteer World echoes a wider trend familiar to many of us working at universities in the global North: Global health travel is “hot.” Short-term medical missions, international health electives, volunteer placements—there’s something seductive about the idea of going to a place seemingly “in need” and “making a difference,” while having new experiences in the process.

For prospective global health travelers, the coexistence of poverty and medical need seems sufficient rationale to pack one’s bags and fly to a foreign country to “help.” Global health travelers operate under the compelling assumption that somehow their medicine is universal and that it will be universally appreciated by individuals experiencing presumed pervasive need.

Yet, within the hosting country, context challenges these presumptions. Assuming that populations are primed to receive whatever well-meaning help arrives mistakenly prioritizes volunteers themselves as protagonists. Indeed, such a narrative problematically dichotomizes volunteers as actors and poor populations as passive receivers—a form of decontextualized travel Teju Cole aptly terms “the white savior industrial complex.”