From the DR: the Burden of Our Aid I
Hi mi amigos,
As you know, providing aid in a foreign and local setting is very complex and often, if we are not careful, we end up achieving the opposite of what we set out to do. One of the most common pitfalls is the burden that we volunteers impose by using valuable resources from the community that we are trying to help. From personal experience, it can sneak up on you or even if you are very aware, be difficult to mitigate.
Before coming on this trip, I was trained on the common ways volunteers unintentionally used the time and resources of the local community they are trying to help. There was the medical student who passes out during surgery, causing the surgeon to attend to her in the middle of surgery. And then there was the research student faces many logistical issues while conducting their project, forcing their supervisor to neglect patients to help the student. Finally, there is the classic tale of the well-meaning intern who believes that everyone needs a paper copy of the new pamphlet, incurring high costs to their organization.
These students didn’t have bad intentions. They simply wished to help, but to realize that, they caused some unintended burdens. Of course, my point isn’t to avoid burdens. That would be an impossible task: even in the developed world, working with professionals will always demand a diversion of their time and resources from others “who may need it more”. But it seems that in a low-resource setting, these professionals’ time becomes substantially more precious and by extension, the consequences of our burden, substantially more severe. And so we must be substantially more aware.
So before leaving, I told myself that I would not become so over-zealous in providing aid that I would overlook these potential issues. I told myself that if I was aware of my own potential burden, I could mitigate it if I couldn’t avoid it. If only it was so easy.
In real life, though we insisted that we did not want to impose, we still often ended up being catered to. Multiple times we have told our local coordinator that we wished to schedule meetings at a time that was convenient for our interviewees, only to meet with someone that looked distressed at being taken away from their job. Another time, we arranged to meet with a local health unit physician, who ushered us into her office, past a line of waiting patients. We tried to politely negotiating an interview for a later time, but she continued to speak to us as patients peered in anxiously through the door. Many times we tried to confirm with locals that we were working with them in a way that was convenient for them. Many times we were told our plans did not interfere with their daily practice. And most times this was untrue. When we looked to our local guides to navigate the system such that it would not be so unfair to their own community, they did not understand.
While it may feel like the situation is out of our control, I found solace in considering the bigger picture. The “need to please” was a response to the foreign-local power dynamic, which was built on something much larger than a few peoples’ actions. Many previous (and current) voluntourists may feel entitled to their high standard of life and poor hosts to feel pressured to provide it, however difficult it may be. And in a country like the Dominican Republic, which runs on a large tourism industry, there may also be an economic incentive for keeping foreigners happy. Of course, I was only one tiny piece in the voluntourist puzzle and I could not expect the whole picture to change for me.
While my whole team could adjust ours actions such that it did not support the silly power dynamic, our actions weren’t enough to convince the locals that they did not need to bend over backwards. We could all do something. More volunteers can reiterate that local needs are valuable. Institutions and facilitators can become experienced in the true burdens that the local community faces to help volunteers navigate a system that is too eager to please, or simply provide supplementary resources to mitigate effects. Aid agencies can establish enough trust with the local community that they feel there is the space to voice their concerns.
Awareness should be directed at the bigger picture, the root of these issues and how they manifest in different situations, rather than attempting to focus on specific instances. It is easy to learn the lesson of not wasting a health professional’s time, but much more rewarding to explore the intricacies of their perception of foreigners where the precise issues arise. And I have learned that a concerted and holistic effort by many parts is the only way that we can address the problem at its source.
Think about a place that you volunteer your time, whether local or abroad. What are some ways that you might be imposing a burden on the organization or community? Where does this burden come from? What role do you play?
Until next time!