From the DR: the Burden of Our Aid II
Beyond the human resources that we use by interacting with the locals, volunteers also have to think about the local environment. In this case, our very presence can achieve the opposite of our intentions – a lesson I learned the hard way.
There are two common aspects of life here in La Romana, DR.
One, we are housed in a dormitory style complex, which has a live-in cook who serves all our meals on disposable plates, cutlery and cups. Being environmentally conscious, we were uneasy to see so much Styrofoam (yes, they were not recyclable paper plates), but brushed it aside in our exhaustion from working on our project.
Two, the pictures of the beach and street below is a typical image of La Romana, the very community whose health we are trying to improve. Like the Styrofoam, we initially found it disturbing to see the beautiful Caribbean scenery blemished with litter, but again, brushed it aside as we could only focus on one problem at a time and we thought our goal to improve health was a pretty important one.
Except that by adding to the garbage on these streets, we were adding to the burden on the pre-existing strained infrastructure, exacerbating an already prominent sanitation issue. As sanitation affects health, we were lowering the health status that we had made our mission to improve. Imagine the children we cared deeply about, playing in sands and swimming in waters that were scattered with our forks and knives. The city’s poor that we found difficult to forget, stumbling amidst our plastic cups.
Environmental issues are global, but in third world countries more immediate needs such as food, shelter, and health take precedence. Unfortunately, while volunteers may address those urgent needs, they sometimes do so at the expense of quiet environmental issues that exacerbate those very needs.
After realizing this, I found it was easy to use re-usable plates and cutlery and urging others to do the same. It is a seemingly unimportant detail but saved me from an abundance of hypocrisy.
Responsible volunteering at home and abroad includes many factors, including wasting human resources and more subtly, the environment. This reiterated the importance for me to aware of the implications of my actions, even when they may appear unrelated and unimportant compared to my volunteer work.