Does ‘voluntourism’ benefit locals? U of T's global health students investigate in Dominican Republic

photo of clinic
Short-term medical missions in the Dominican Republic and the island of Hispaniola typically establish pop-up clinics in bateyes (photo courtesy of The 53rd Week)

Service learning and voluntourism – volunteer educational trips – are ways students often respond to global concerns by helping local populations.

Helen Dimaras, an assistant professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, found herself wondering if such volunteer interventions really do help. What if the volunteer trips held more benefit for students and were actually causing harm to the communities they were hoping to help?

So Dimaras and her colleague Lawrence Loh set out to investigate.

In 2014, they took a team of undergraduate students from Dimaras’ third-year human biology course on global health research to the Dominican Republic and an island it shares with Haiti. They focused on migrant workers who work on large sugar plantations and live in communities connected to the plantations, called bateyes, where there is no running water, electricity and many don’t have latrines.

Students conducted surveys on the perceptions of short-term volunteerism from the perspective of foreign volunteers, local communities of migrant workers and local organizations helping them. Community residents emphasized the material benefits – medicine, food and so on. But, there was also evidence of existing stereotypes with international volunteers feeling they have superior knowledge and skills compared with the recipients.

In 2017, Dimaras and another group of undergraduates returned to the bateyes to complete the ‘knowledge to action’ cycle by sharing the research results with volunteers, communities and organizations. Their goal: to generate awareness and inspire action for change.

A photo of one of Dimaras' undergraduate classes in the sugarcane fields (photo courtesy of Helen Dimaras and Ron Wilson)

“Given that my global health research undergraduate students are often the targets of these types of trips, I thought it important to combine this study with their coursework,” said Dimaras. “We travelled to La Romana with The 53rd Week, an organization which advocates for more responsible, locally integrated efforts of foreigners visiting to work in bateyes.

“It was important that we go again in 2017 so that the research does not remain in the academic world, but reaches the individuals and organizations who have the opportunity to apply the results and change practices.”

Dimaras added that the research has highlighted the need for the voice of the community to be heard, ensuring that health-care interventions are designed and implemented with their input.

The research also criticized voluntourist efforts, saying they are “marked by a power differential and the assumption that privileged students from western countries have something to offer to less privileged or marginalized societies.”

“Each partner has something to offer towards meeting a common goal or solving a common challenge,” Dimaras said. “A partnership takes time to develop and develops organically. This can be challenging in the context of short-term visits by different volunteers, but “when solid partnerships are built from the ground up and over time, then the roles where each partner fits can emerge naturally.”

Orianna Mak, a fourth-year global health student, says taking part in the trip allowed her to apply her knowledge in a tangible, real-world situation in order to enact real change.

“Having been involved quite heavily in the international volunteer world, I have always been interested in critiques of short-term volunteering and wanted to understand ways to optimize it,” said Mak.

“The earlier research emphasizes the importance of authentic partnerships. We constantly talk about how important this is in global health, but it wasn’t until I went to the Dominican Republic that I fully appreciated what that meant.”

The undergraduate research trips to the Dominican Republic were offered as part of the Faculty of Arts & Science International Course Modules (ICM) program which enables students to travel to different locations in the world to directly experience what they are studying in class.


The Bulletin Brief logo

Subscribe to The Bulletin Brief

Arts & Science