Proper training is essential for volunteers. Volunteers who are not both practically and psychologically competent to work abroad can end up being a burden to the global health organization and its local partners. On the other hand, well-prepared volunteers can make an immediate, high-impact difference. Those traveling to developing countries must first be educated about local culture, and familiarize themselves with their target communities.
In addition, volunteers must be competent to carry out their duties, which may include providing education or completing basic medical tasks. Incompetent volunteers can do more harm than good by propagating false information, or interfering with proper medical care. Thus, all global health volunteers must have a basic knowledge of international development and best practices in global health.
Depending on their area of expertise, some volunteers can apply their skills abroad. Qualified medical professionals can provide healthcare alongside local physicians and nurses. Photographers and filmmakers can document global health endeavors, and later publicize global health needs and activities to raise funds and awareness. Business professionals can teach about micro-enterprise in an effort to build local economic capacity. When volunteers have relevant special skills, they should be applied to maximize the impact of a global health initiative. No volunteer, however, should ever provide services beyond his or her level of expertise.
Volunteers who have been educated about global health and development are valuable observers on the ground. They are in a position to witness global health initiatives in action, draw their own conclusions about the failures and inequities of global health systems, and develop their own ideas to contribute to the public health field.
Unite For Sight volunteer Dr. Aron Rose comments on the inspirational energy of global health student volunteers:
“It’s a fabulous idea – tapping into youth who have energy and idealism, but don’t necessarily have an application for that energy. This is such a satisfying experience and such a vital experience for young people to become involved in. The world becomes a larger place, one feels a sense of purpose working with needy people, and it expands one’s horizon, working in the developing world.”(1)
If the proper infrastructure is in place, volunteers’ idealism can be harnessed and used to create positive change. Networks of volunteers can translate their energy into highly effective assistance to local medical clinics and health programs. Inspiring others to become volunteers is the foundation of any successful grassroots effort.
Volunteers who travel to developing countries also inspire those in the developing world. The simple fact that people from thousands of miles away care about local patients’ problems can be incredibly encouraging. Moreover, those suffering in developing areas often feel their afflictions are permanent, which can be depressing and isolating. Dr. James Clarke, a Ghanaian ophthalmologist and Unite For Sight partner, explains how visiting volunteers can uplift and mobilize local communities:
“An advantage of having volunteers is that when [the volunteers] tell them that the conditions that [the local patients] have occur all over the world, that it’s not unique to them, it’s very encouraging for them to hear that. They then come in for treatment.”(2)