How to plan an ethical elective

In the past few years, as travel abroad has become more accessible and people are more aware of their privileges, the opportunity to give back whilst travelling has grown in popularity. From aiding in community projects, to teaching or youth group work, volunteering whilst on your journey can be a worthwhile activity that benefits the people you meet.

The word voluntourism has grown in recognition recently, with both positive and negative connotations. On one hand, a visiting volunteer can be part of a structure which helps a community who otherwise would not have access to learning materials or aid. Alternatively, it can be harmful for an organisation who rely on the economic gains of supporting volunteers, to the detriment of locals.

An example of this, was the revelation in 2016 that as many as 80% of children in orphanages around the world have at least one living parent and many more have family available to take over their care. Whilst many of these facilities are set up with good intent, there are also opportunities for economic incentive to keep as many orphanages as possible full, to receive aid and well-intentioned volunteers from around the globe. A constant stream of volunteers will replace the need for paid carers but cannot offer the long-term care that many of the children need. This is just one example of how voluntourism can be harmful even when you have the best aims at heart.

At The Electives Network, we strive to find you the best opportunities for your elective and only work with likeminded institutions. We research all new partners to make sure their principles align with our own, ensuring you are never placed in an uncomfortable position whilst on your elective.

However, there may be points in time during your elective where you feel uneasy about certain requests made of you or scenarios you find yourself in. As medical students, you must remain even more vigilant than the average tourist due to the nature of your position in institutions and communities that may not have the resources you are familiar with. Ultimately, you are a student and not a medical professional, so no matter the situation, you must not be drawn into acting out of your remit due to the potential damage it could cause.

Always ask yourself, is this something I am trained to do, or should this work be conducted by a professional from the community itself? Look at what skills you can offer that do not replace the need for a paid worker. That way you will not fall into the ‘saviour’ trap that can be extremely damaging for global health structures.