Global health volunteers are part of a growing industry — some call it a tsunami. Medical students are taking time off from their studies to help patients in developing nations. Nonprofits, churches and even corporations are sending volunteers to places where medical care is inadequate and patients are in need. But are these volunteers effective?

“It seems like an awful lot of resources to invest in something for which there’s practically no evidence of its impact,” Lehigh Professor Judith Lasker tells us. Her new book is Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering. She says a couple billion dollars are spent on the industry each year, and millions of people worldwide are involved. “There’s no regulation of this whole industry of any kind, except on the part of the host countries if they choose to limit who can visit and what their qualifications should be,” Lasker says. “I can set up an NGO tomorrow, get it certified. I can just recruit people, and go on a trip, and bring medicines with me to some community in South America.”

Lasker points out that there are well-developed programs in which volunteers are highly trained, and they collaborate closely with host communities. But she also describes myriad programs that lack these standards, and talks about how that impacts patient care. Lasker reveals that host communities receive just a fraction of the billions spent on the sector each year, and provides best practices for effective volunteer programs.

Additional Resources

Tiny Spark investigation into the harm caused by medical volunteers in post-quake Haiti. amasses evidence-based tools and peer-reviewed research to advance best practices in global learning, cooperative development, and community-university partnership.

Lasker writes for Global Alliance for Nursing and Midwifery (GANM) blog: Hoping to help: improving short-term medical missions

Chronicle of Philanthropy: Author Urges a Rethink About Medical Volunteerism Abroad

New York Times: Book Review: ‘Hoping to Help’ Questions Value of Volunteers

Forbes: 6 Ways To Volunteer Abroad And Be Really Useful

Bureau of Labor Statistics: stats on volunteering

Lasker on Twitter