To participate in a short term volunteer mission in a developing country sounds exciting to the novice. This enthusiasm, however, should be tempered with realistic expectations and goals to ensure that the assigment is as successful as possible for both the volunteer and the hosts.
Short term volunteers are utilized by many organizations to maximize the participation of individuals within a profession. It is ideal for many professionals as well, since arranging and preparing for a two week or one month assignment in a developing country is relatively easy compared to a permanent move overseas.
This way, health care communities in developing countries benefit from the skills and knowledge of a wide-range of professionals. These professionals, in turn, benefit from the opportunity to experience life in a developing country and to learn from colleagues providing health care in a resource-scarce environment.
However, volunteers need time to adjust to the new conditions of a developing country setting. Sometimes, volunteers face a “culture shock”, which can be better explained as “a psychological disorientation most people experience when they move into a culture markedly different from their own.” Indeed, being a volunteer means that one must be aware of cultural differences and be able to work effectively in an atmosphere of differing expectations and values
A good way to combat culture shock is to learn as much as you can about your host country. Do not be afraid to ask questions, ever if they sound silly. Above all else, volunteering overseas is as much a learning experience for you as for the people hosting you. Having realistic expectations of yourself and others will help you to be flexible and tolerant.
Therefore advance preparation is a critical component of a successful volunteer assignment, but one not easy to accomplish since most volunteers are squeezing their trips into already busy schedules. Once you arrive in-country, briefings will usually be short because your host country organizers are busy.
First, you should become somewhat familiar with the history and culture of the country you will visit. Your hosts will appreciate any efforts you make to familiarize yourself with their country, culture, history and customs.
Secondly, understanding your own culture and its peculiarities goes a long way in preparing yourself for overseas duty. Americans have been described by foreigners as outgoing and friendly and, alternately, as informal and rude. Other qualities ascribed to Americans include: hard-working, extravagant, wasteful, too confident that they have all the answers, and always in a hurry.
However, volunteers, in turn, may be frustrated by some local health care providers who arrive late to clinics or leave early for private practices or other jobs. They may have private practices in odd hours, or may have a second job in an entirely unrelated field. But, remember that these individuals face many daily frustrations and, in fact, often work more than one job just to provide for their families.
Not surprisingly, most hospitals that volunteers work in are overcrowded and less sanitary than in the United States. Setting na example of cleanliness and infection control may be one of the most important contributions a volunteer can make. Consistent reinforcement of this concept is essential if conditions are to improve.
You must avoid the overwhelming temptation to take on difficult cases in order to demonstrate a method of handling a problem that cannot be dealt with after you leave. Resisting this temptation may be a challenge at times, since short-term volunteers must realize that they are not going to change the whole world in the time that they are working overseas. The whole idea of the mission is to bring solution, not leave problems.
Remember that how you are perceived by your hosts is critical to how effective you will be during your brief stay. The more empathy and sincerity you show for the culture and daily challenges of your hosts, the more respect you will command and a more effective volunteer you will become.
Finally, in addition to being well-prepared for an overseas assignment, successful short term volunteers must share certain qualities. Here is the list:
· Culturally sensitive
· Committed to sharing knowlegd and skills