Released this January 2016 from Cornell University Press is Judith Lasker’s Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering (available for purchase here.) Lasker’s book examines the phenomenon of overseas medical volunteering, wherein individuals from wealthier countries travel for short periods to the developing world to offer humanitarian aid and medical services. These volunteers are sponsored by churches, non-profit organizations, or arrive in poorer countries via for-profit “voluntourism” companies that plan such travel.
Through participant observation, surveys, and interviews with volunteers, key figures in humanitarian organizations, and volunteer staff members native to developing nations, Lasker examines the impact of these ventures on host communities. She weighs present arguments that suggest that global health volunteering is a form of neo-colonialism, that this form of humanitarianism may cross ethical boundaries in the host community, and that volunteers’ need to “give back” may be otherwise misguided and harmful. Lasker places special emphasis on how volunteer organizations themselves benefit from the work of volunteers in developing countries. She likewise addresses whether or not these organizations’ objectives are truly responsive to the needs of the host community, or to what the host community identifies as a concern. She then weighs whether such aims place the volunteer’s experience ahead of the needs of the people who are the perceived recipients of aid.
Lasker’s text will be of equal interest to global health scholars and medical anthropologists and sociologists. Its attention to neo-colonialism and themes of globalization and power will likewise interest scholars who study global development and cross-cultural biomedicine.
About the author: Judith N. Lasker is N.E.H. Distinguished Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.