Judith Lasker is troubled by service trips to provide health care in the developing world. Some of them are great: useful for the local community and inspiring for the volunteers. Others smack of colonialism, she warns in a new book, where the main focus is on what Americans can get out of the experience.
Lasker, a sociologist at Lehigh University, spoke with STAT about how people can make the most of these charitable vacations.
What kind of global health trips are worthwhile?
The kinds of programs that are good for host communities are also good for volunteers.
Your biggest complaint is that the trips are too short. How long is long enough?
We interviewed 55 host staff in four countries and asked them how long a volunteer trip should last. The consensus was quite strong that less than three weeks was really not very useful, except in some cases like surgical missions if they had follow-up.
So why are there so many short trips?
Because people don’t have time. The organizations find it easier to recruit people to go for a week, and they make more money that way. The more people you can cycle through programs, the more your organization grows, the more people you have involved, the more potential donors you might have.
Why not just be grateful for the week? Isn’t any help better than none?
There’s a real lack of continuity of care for the host community. [Some participants] also come back with what I call bad learning, saying: “Poor people are so happy; they smiled, and sang and danced, and they don’t mind being poor” — and all these kinds of stereotypes that there’s no way could have a basis in reality, based on spending a week where you don’t understand the language and where you only talk to people through translators.
Anything else that really ticks you off?
When you have students go to another country and do a health education lecture based on a day of Internet research. I find that whole thing quite unbelievable. What would it be like if somebody from another country arrived in the United States, and after a day, stood up in front of a group of Americans and told them how to change their behavior? I think people would be appalled and horrified — or amused.
Is there an object that best represents who you are today?
A silver sugar bowl. My mother went to Paris for her junior year abroad in the 1930s when it was very unusual, and she lived with a family that she became very close to. In their will they left her a silver sugar bowl. It says a lot to me about the kind of person she was — a traveler, an adventurer, and somebody who connected with people.
Judith Lasker is a distinguished professor of sociology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and the author of “Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering.” This interview has been edited and condensed.