Who has the responsibility: Ethical partnerships for students working overseas

November 27, 2014

IFGH Conference 2014 Student Workshop on Ethical Partnerships

Key Correspondent: Anneliese Arno

A special panel session on ‘Ethical Partnerships: A Student Focussed Discussion and Workshop’ was held at the IFGH November Conference. Led by the Student Outreach Group (SOG), things kicked off with individual presentations by each panellist and ended with an animated debate on the nature of volunteering abroad.SOG Logo14

The discussion ranged from the sustainability of overseas projects to the feasibility of regulating so-called “voluntourism”; a term referring to the exchange of time spent volunteering with NGOs or charities in order to travel abroad. While some argued that this work overseas is urgently in need of regulation, panellist Sean O’Connell of UCD Volunteers Overseas, said bluntly that regulation would be “pointless”.

The panel and ensuing discussion fed into a breakout session the following day of the conference.  Recognising the current limitations of many non-profit organisations and academic institutions to regulate and support students engaging in overseas work, this session aimed to establish recommendations for better ethical partnerships.  The group divided itself into three to establish working guidelines for the following categories: prior to, during, and after overseas work. They then re-joined, shared their work, and together formulated a draft of compiled guidelines for future dissemination. From a student perspective, these guidelines were meant to address some of the questions up for debate.  In particular, who is ultimately responsible for students’ conduct in research and volunteering while abroad, as well as what should be covered in pre-departure training.

Overall, the guidelines focused mostly on student and institutional relationships, with an emphasis on medical electives, though it did make mention of “volunteer internships”. The major themes presented were the transparency of partnerships and the accountability to maintain them in the long-term; fitting with the overall theme of the entire conference.

Shira Goldstein, a recent MSc Global Health TCD graduate and founder of Afia Clinics International, spoke on the necessity of involving local partners in order to sustain projects after the departure of international partners. “Whatever you leave behind must be for the long-term good.”  She also noted that when abroad we must be aware of inherent power relations between domestic and international participants. This sentiment was echoed in the written recommendations and follow-up break-out session.

Recommendations included regular and honest feedback with host institutions, both during and after overseas placements, as well as having vetted eligibility criteria, to ensure that those travelling are up to the task. Pre-departure preparations should be held over multiple sessions and include cultural sensitivity and country-specific training.

The conclusion of this recommendation document places “the onus of responsibility” on the students’ home institutions or organization, ensuring that those travelling abroad have the skills and training necessary to engage ethically with their work and hosting communities.  Seeming to answer the debate over who holds the power. The draft of this document has since been circulated to those who participated in the session and feedback has been solicited.  It will be interesting to see how these recommendations transform, and whether we can begin to reflect more on our role as students in how we begin to call accountability for these ethical criteria.

In a follow up to these two sessions, there is an upcoming UCD Volunteers Overseas Conference on Saturday 29 November.  The conference is being held in partnership with Comhlámh and Development Perspectives, as well as Campus Engage and others.  One of the goals of the conference will be ‘to determine a vision for the future of international volunteering in Higher Education’. Whatever that vision entails, we look forward to seeing a myriad of perspectives represented with even more student reflection and engagement at this event.  Hopefully as well, there will be another opportunity for lively discussion and re-visiting of these recommendations, as set out by those participants at the IFGH Conference.


Anneliese Arno

Key Correspondent

Email: arnoa@tcd.ie

Twitter: @anneliesearno



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