7 Questions to Consider for Ethical Service

Volunteering can be helpful but it can also be harmful, and good intent does not always equal good impact. Before signing up for a volunteer experience, ask yourself the questions below. If you can’t answer the questions with confidence, research the volunteer organization and read the additional referenced materials as you consider the experience.
 

1. Does the service experience utilize a partnership approach?

Service leaders and organizations can make the mistake of assuming what is best for a community without sufficiently including community members as partners in service planning. This is detrimental to the community and can create imbalanced, “benefactor” and “beneficiary” relationships.
Consider:

Consider the following questions, adapted from the Fair Trade Learning Standards, to ensure a partnership relationship:

  • Think about community impact. Does the service program work hand in hand with a wide range of leaders in the community you are serving?
  • Do community members have clear teaching and leadership roles as well as clear roles in financial distribution, driving research direction, process, and publication, with fair authorship rights?
  • Are visiting volunteers taking away opportunities from local young people and students?
  • Do multiple community members and program leaders share the same long-term goals?
Information Sources and Further Resources
Hartman, E., Morris Paris, C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research (14) 1 – 2: 108 – 116.

Melby, M. K. (2016). Beyond Medical “Missions” to Impact-Driven Short-Term Experiences in Global Health (STEGHs): Ethical Principles to Optimize Community Benefit and Learner Experience. Academic Medicine, 91(5), 633-638.

Ngo, M. (2013). Canadian Youth Volunteering Abroad: Rethinking Issues of Power and Privilege. Current issues in comparative education, 16(1), 49-61.

2. Does the program include volunteer orientations, ongoing trainings, and reflection?

Volunteers may serve in communities that they have never been to or heard much about before their service experience. When that is the case, it is important that you remember you are visiting as a guest in someone else’s community and must learn the context in which you will be serving.
Consider:
  • Does the service experience include pre-service training and orientation about the history, culture, language, and power structures present in the community with which you are working? Have you made efforts yourself to study the country, community, or neighborhood where you’re going? Do you understand the role that the U.S. or secular or religious groups have played in the communities you are now visiting?
  • Does the service experience have opportunities throughout your service for you to reflect on and critically consider your experiences?
  • After the service experience, do students continue structured reflection and commit to concrete action to continue their service?
Sources and Further Resources

Amerson, R. (2010). The Impact of Service-Learning on Cultural Competence. Nursing education perspectives, 31(1), 18-22.

Hartman, E., Morris Paris, C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research (14) 1 – 2: 108 – 116.

Illich, I. (1968, April). To hell with good intentions. In Conference on Inter-American Student Projects. Cuernavaca, Mexico. Retrieved from http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm.

Perez, M. (2016, May 9). Things no one tells you about short term mission trips. In Relevant Magazine. Retrieved from https://relevantmagazine.com/reject-apathy/things-no-one-tells-you-about-going-short-term-mission-trips.

3. What impact does the service experience have on the local economy?

Is the work directly contributing to the local economy, providing income for local workers, and fostering growth? In contrast, is it crippling the economy by flooding it with free commodities? Could the work volunteers are doing be done by a local worker?
Consider:
  • Does the service experience help support community organizations - by renting space in their buildings, for example?
  • Does the service experience patronize local restaurants, host families, or locally-owned housing options when hosting traveling volunteers?
  • Does the service experience avoid the distribution of free services or products when doing so would disrupt local business or employee opportunities?
  • Is the service experience having volunteers do work for free when they could be providing a job for a local community member?
Sources and Further Resources:
Davenport, Cheryl (2012, April 10). The Broken “Buy-One, Give-One” Model: 3 Ways To Save Toms Shoes. Fast Company Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.fastcompany.com/1679628/the-broken-buy-one-give-one-model-three-ways-to-save-toms-shoes.

Greenberg, D. J. (2008). Teaching Global Citizenship, Social Change, and Economic Development in a History Course: A Course Model in Latin American Travel/Service Learning. The History Teacher, 41(3), 283-304.
Hartman, E., Morris Paris, C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research, 14(1– 2): 108 – 116.

Holland, T. (2015). First, Do No Harm. A Qualitative Research Documentary. http://globalsl.org/first-do-no-harm-a-global-health-documentary/
Luh Sin, H. (2015). Traveling for a cause: Critical examinations of volunteer tourism and social justice. Tourist studies, 15(2), 119-131.

4. Does the service experience protect vulnerable populations?

A vulnerable population is a group of people who are at higher risk of adverse effect due to individual, community, or larger population challenges. Examples of vulnerable populations include children, individuals with special needs, the elderly, those with physical or mental illness, or other individuals who need protections. When serving with vulnerable individuals, service experiences should include precautions that protect and safe-guard the well-being of that population.
Consider:
  • Are vulnerable populations clearly protected through appropriate safeguards and relevant training for all individuals involved in the partnership?
  • Does the service experience require protections such as background checks, skill-level evaluations, confidentiality training, and other training before allowing volunteers to interact with individuals of a vulnerable population?
  • Does the service experience last long enough that the benefits of direct volunteer interactions in the community will outweigh the stress of volunteer turnover—a suggested 4 week minimum (Volunteering with Children)?
Sources and Further Resources:
Hartman, E. (2015, Dec 4). Seven red flags when considering an international volunteer program. Matador Network Website. Retrieved from https://matadornetwork.com/pulse/7-red-flags-considering-international-volunteer-program/.

Hartman, E., Morris, P. C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research (14) 1 – 2: 108 – 116.

Volunteering with Children: Our Guidelines. Responsible Travel [website]. Retrieved from: https://www.responsiblevacation.com/vacations/volunteering-with-children/travel-guide/volunteering-with-children-our-guidelines.

5. Does the program represent volunteers as saviors or heroes in its photos or media?

Photos or other forms of media that represent the poor or vulnerable as requiring external assistance for help are sometimes called poverty porn or stereotype porn. This kind of representation feeds off volunteers’ desire to make a difference but damages the respect and recognition of agency that volunteers should afford the people with whom they are working.
Consider:
  • Do recruitment or other outreach materials serve an educative function, shaping expectations for ethical engagement?
  • Does it reflect a “white savior” dynamic, or does it show the dignity of people in host communities partnering with outsiders to learn together (Cole, 2012)?
  • Compare their photos to the examples of ethical photography from the GlobalSL website: http://globalsl.org/ethical-photography-contest-4-guidelines-5-examples-100-prize/
Sources and Further Resources:

Cole, T. (2012, Mar 21). The White-Savior Industrial Complex. The Atlantic Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/.

Collin, M. (2009, July 1). What is “poverty porn” and why does it matter for development. Aid Thoughts [website]. Retrieved from http://aidthoughts.org/?p=69.

Ethical Photography & Global Service: 4 Principles, 4 Examples. GlobalSL [website]. Retrieved from http://globalsl.org/ethical-photography-contest-4-guidelines-5-examples-100-prize/.

Hartman, E. (2015, Dec 4). Seven red flags when considering an international volunteer program. Matador Network [website]. Retrieved from https://matadornetwork.com/pulse/7-red-flags-considering-international-volunteer-program/.

Hartman, E., Morris, P. C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research, 14 (1–2): 108 – 116.

6. Is the organization financially transparent?

Reputable organizations should have a clear, detailed breakdown of their finances publicly available online. The allocation of fees associated with going on a volunteer trip should be thoroughly explained to volunteers and the majority of said fees should be invested back into the community.
Consider:
  • Do all partners in the service experience (volunteers, organizers, local communities, financial stakeholders) have access to information regarding financial commitments and disbursements that support the partnership?
  • Do all partners have opportunities to openly and critically discuss financial commitments?
Sources and Further Resources:
Hartman, E., Morris, P., C., & Blache-Cohen, B. (2014). Fair trade learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism. Tourism & Hospitality Research, 14(1– 2): 108 – 116.

7. Does the organization prioritize volunteering over the travel experience and tourism?

Service organizations offering volunteer trips should emphasize that they’re creating a culture where the focus is on service, not drinking, nightlife or being a tourist. Respecting and working with the host communities should be attended to first and foremost, before volunteers consider their travel interests. Drug and alcohol use on volunteer trips should be prohibited so as to promote focus on the purpose of the trip.
 

 

3 More Questions to Consider before Volunteering Abroad

Voluntourism abroad is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, and over 1.6 million students travel abroad for service annually. Most of these students are very well intentioned undergraduates or recent college graduates. Because of the added complexity when traveling abroad, students should ask additional questions when considering a trip.

1. Does the program offer medical voluntourism, or short-term mobile clinic trips?

Medical volunteer trips often fail to have a positive impact on the community, especially when volunteers are unlicensed.
Before you commit to a short-term medical trip consider:
  • Unsustainable, unethical distribution of medicine and healthcare in the mobile clinic setting can have long lasting negative impacts on communities. (Roberts, 2006)
  • Short-term mobile clinic trips run by nonprofits or organizations not affiliated with the government fail to invest in pre-existing local healthcare systems. (Holland & Holland, 2015)
  • Medical voluntourism brings local doctors out of local hospitals to provide shadowing hours to foreign volunteers, when local medical students could benefit more from that physician’s time. (Holland & Holland, 2015)
  • Only 36.3% of matriculating medical students had medical mission trips on their resumes in 2015, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (2012).
  • If you were a patient at the clinic you are volunteering in, would you be comfortable?
Information Sources and Further Resources

Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). (2012). Medical School Graduation Questionnaire: 2012 All Schools Summary Report. Washington, DC. AAMC. Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/download/300448/data/2012gqallschoolssummaryreport.pdf

Holland, A. & Holland, T. (2011). First, do no harm: a qualitative research documentary. [Vimeo video]. Retrieved from http://globalsl.org/first-do-no-harm-a-global-health-documentary/.

McCall, D. (2014). Health Care Voluntourism: Addressing Ethical Concerns of Undergraduate Student Participation in Global Health Volunteer Work. HEC forum, 26(4), 285-297.

Roberts, M. (2006). Duffle bag medicine. Jama, 295(13), 1491-1492.

Sanguinetti, C. (2016). The Voluntourist. Retrieved from: http://compact.org/resource-posts/new-film-the-voluntourist/

2. Does the volunteer trip allow or tolerate unlicensed professional practice by volunteers?

All human beings deserve high-quality medical care, dental care, legal representation, and other professional care. Service organizations should consistently and publicly denounce any unlicensed professional practice. Volunteers should never be allowed to perform procedures or consultations that they are not licensed to do in the country they’re visiting.
Consider:
  • Are volunteers given the opportunity to observe trained and licensed professionals rather than providing unlicensed or untrained services? (AAMC, 2011)
  • Does the trip keep the welfare of the patient/client as the priority over the experience of the volunteer? (AAMC, 2011)
  • Does the trip provide appropriate training for volunteers’ supportive efforts (such as training volunteers to provide preventative health education)? (AAMC, 2011)
  • Does the trip consider the challenges of language and cultural barriers to providing effective service? (McCall, 2014)
Information Sources and Further Resources

Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) (2011). Guidelines for Premedical and Medical Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad. Washington DC. (AAMC). Retrieved from https://www.aamc.org/download/181690/data/guidelinesforstudentsproviding...

McCall, D., & Iltis, A. S. (2014, December). Health care voluntourism: addressing ethical concerns of undergraduate student participation in global health volunteer work. In HEC forum (Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 285-297). Springer Netherland

Resources. The Working Group on Global Activities by Students at Pre-Health Levels. [website]. Retrieved from http://www.gaspworkinggroup.org/resources/

(2009) Global Health Essential Core Competencies. Joint US/Canadian Committee on Global Health Core Competencies. Retrieved from: ,http://lane.stanford.edu/portals/ihealth-pdfs/BasicCore_Competencies_Fin...

3. Does the trip offer the opportunity to volunteer in an orphanage?

Volunteering abroad in orphanages can be harmful for the children the trip is intending to help, can perpetuate disruption of families, and can support profit-generating systems that do not have children’s best interests in mind.
Consider:
  • Children can become attached to volunteers quickly, especially when they’ve already experienced separation from their family. Having multiple experiences with volunteers who stay for a short time and then leave harms a child’s ability to trust or invest in relationships (Orphanage Volunteering).
  • Research has shown that unneeded orphanages are created in popular tourist locations in order to generate profits from volunteers (Orphanage Volunteering).
  • Research has also shown that around 80% of children in orphanages have at least one living parent (Csaky, 2009). Parents may give their children to an “orphanage” because they’re told it’s the best way for the child to access education, food, and healthcare (Ministry of Social Affairs). However, being in an orphanage seriously adversely affects a child’s health, development, and future, and greatly increases their likelihood of experiencing abuse (How volunteering abroad).
  • Volunteering for the purposes of helping children is most effective and avoids harm when the service is focused on supporting families and communities rather than serving specifically in orphanages. 
(Orphanage Volunteering).
Information Sources and Further Resources

Orphanage Volunteering–Why to Say No. (2016, May 1). Better Volunteering Better Care. Retrieved from http://bettercarenetwork.org/sites/default/files/Orphanage%20Volunteerin....

Csáky, C. (2009). Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions, Why we should be investing in family- based care. Save the Children.

Guiney, T. (2015). Orphanage Tourism: The Need for Protection and Policy. Risk, Protection, Provision and Policy, 1-21.

How volunteering abroad in orphanages is harmful to children. (2016). Kindea Labs [Vimeo video]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/166530700.

Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation. (2011). A Study of Attitudes Towards Residential Care in Cambodia, 48 – 49.


This resource list was developed through collaboration between MEDLIFE KU and the KU Center for Service Learning. Special thanks go to Daisy Crane and Aly Lange of MEDLIFE KU for their primary curation of these resources.


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MEDLIFE KU

Students from MEDLIFE KU hold a workshop to make reusable pads for women in communities lacking hygiene resources.
Students from MEDLIFE KU hold a workshop to make reusable pads for women in communities lacking hygiene resources.

Ethical Photography: How To

From the Gloablsl.org Ethical Photography Contest

  1. Choose photos that represent people truthfully and show dignity, equality, support and integrity.
  2. Ensure those being represented in the images maintain the right to share their story in their own way.
  3. Abstain from using photos that potentially stereotype, sensationalize or discriminate against people, situations or places.
  4. Use images, messages and case studies with the full understanding, participation and permission of the subjects (or subjects’ parents/guardian) .
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