Primum non nocere
OUR STANCE ON CONSTRUCTION, MEDICAL, AND VETERINARY VOLUNTEERING
As a volunteer and intern abroad organisation, we always strive to provide educational, impactful, safe, and ethical programs for all participants. Some of those programs currently or have once involved health awareness and training, construction projects, and working with animals in veterinary clinics.
Critics of volunteering abroad question the ethicality of allowing people who aren’t qualified or specifically skilled in things such as construction or public health to perform such tasks. This criticism is especially relevant for high skill tasks such as medical and veterinary procedures and complex construction work.
They are right to criticise. We agree with them in some parts, but not in others. This will be expanded on below. We will highlight why we don’t do certain specialised volunteering. It will also highlight that, where we do assist in projects that require specific skills, it is within very clearly defined parameters.
First, do no harm
We have 10 Ethics Principles that we conduct all of our operations by. One of these principles is ‘Primum Non Nocere’, which we borrowed from the Hippocratic Oath that doctors and nurses sometimes swear. It means, ‘First, do no harm’.
We have never and will never knowingly allow participants to do anything they are not qualified to do in their own home country. Allowing this would be unethical and create a strong possibility for harm to occur. This is not acceptable to us, because the wellbeing and security of each of our stakeholders is of prime importance.
Our participants complete detailed project training only on those tasks that do not require advanced study and qualification (think: operating heavy machinery or conducting a surgery). Similarly, they are under regular and close supervision with GVI staff. The combination of understanding the abilities of the participant, giving them specific training, and ensuring oversight effectively negates the potential for any harm to be done.
Participants are also trained in the local cultural expectations and norms, as well as local and global sustainable development issues. This allows them to make a real positive impact while still gaining career-relevant experience.
The nature of the construction work our participants conduct is generally unskilled (except in certain cases where volunteers can verify that they have required skills). It almost always involves small, handyman-like tasks: painting, easy woodwork, hanging shelves, heavy lifting, etc. Whatever the project, whether simple beautification or more complex, in-depth bolds, the participants will always be playing the role of assistance.
GVI participants generally contribute in small but cumulative ways within longer term projects that are planned and managed by our local partners and GVI staff at specific bases. When there are tasks that require specialised skills or extensive experience (e.g. welding, bricklaying) within a given long-term construction project, local professionals or organisations are employed. These local resources are funded either through participant program fees, the GVI Trust or by funds raised by the participants themselves whilst they are in the field.
Contracting local services contributes to the sustainability of these construction projects both by providing work opportunities and by increasing a sense of ownership over the project in locals.
Ensuring and respecting local ownership is one of GVI’s 10 Ethical Principles, and ownership of construction projects is essential. First, the community or partner needs to propose a construction project and ask for assistance. Second, community members or partner organisation members need to help drive the project in some way, to the greatest degree they are able - even if it is just contributing an hour of their time and effort. These two factors will help to ensure that the construction project, once completed, will serve the community and not fall into disuse. There is also always a process for following up on projects and ensuring that maintenance is conducted when necessary.
Medical and public health volunteering
There is a distinction between public health, and medical volunteering. GVI does not provide volunteer or intern programs in medical volunteering.
Medical volunteering involves conducting medical interventions and procedures, undertaking medical prognostic and diagnostic activities, and prescribing medicinal treatment, to name a few. Any medical activity requires some measure of academic qualification and some level of formal training and previous experience through apprenticeship or internship. Any medical activity involves in it some measure of risk.
In accordance with our Ethic Principle of Primum non nocere, we do not have medical or programs. While we do train all of our participants and staff in Emergency First Response skills, these are for emergencies only, and we do not allow any participant or staff member to participate in medical procedures or public health activities while they are at a GVI base.
Unskilled, unqualified medical volunteering is highly unethical. Allowing people with no qualification or experience to participate in or undertake such activities, even under the supervision of qualified or skilled individuals, creates a high potential for harm to come to anyone involved. We cannot accept the possibility of harm at this scale.
Instead, GVI has public health programs that are focused on educating and preventing potential illness and injury.
Our participants on the public health programs participate and conduct things like:
- Health awareness and personal health education workshops
- Capacity building through training local staff
- Assisting qualified health professionals in health education
- Assisting qualified health professionals in data collection
- Contributing to resource development.
GVI has previously trialled veterinary volunteering programs in the past at the request of local communities and partners. Still, every now and then, we will still assist local veterinary clinics if they ask for assistance. We have, however, decided to stop offering programs specified as ‘veterinary volunteering’.
Veterinary volunteering involves activities that include spay and neuter campaigns and local education around those campaigns; pre- and post-operative care; and helping to care for and maintain clinic facilities. None of these activities require formal training or previous experience.
The reason we stopped veterinary volunteering was because of the potential for participants to be allowed by local professionals to do things that are unethical.
We found that local clinic staff at certain projects were sometimes keen to please the participants. There were instances where unskilled participants were invited to help with activities that GVI had agreed was beyond the participants roles. They were also beyond what these participants were qualified in their home countries to do.
Despite close support by GVI staff, we felt that this risk, presented by the dynamic of local partners wanting to involve the international volunteers in veterinary procedures, beyond basic animal care, was untenable. And so, in keeping with ethical best practices, we eltimately we decided to withdraw responsibly from all veterinary clinics and stop operating veterinary volunteer projects.
Now, when we do ask participants to work with local veterinary clinics, this becomes a small part of a different program, and is requested by our local partners. These activities are always very clearly defined and easy to monitor - typically reserved to funding support and local education campaigns on animal health. This means the risk of unethical practice and harm is minimised nearly to none.
VOLUNTEERING WITH PERSONS WITH DISABILITIES
Using the term “persons with disabilities” is a broad concept used to encapsulate a diversity of humans who live with intellectual disabilities, motor or mobility disabilities, learning difficulties, or people who are sensorily impaired. In the past, GVI has had projects that have provided volunteer help for institutions in various locations around the world who have assisted local professional caregivers in caring for people with disabilities. These projects mainly consisted of unskilled volunteers assisting with the care of persons with intellectual disabilities.
As an organisation that provides structured programs in sustainable development in host nations for largely unskilled volunteers and interns, we are very careful about any potential harm that our participants could cause. The third of our Ten Ethical Commitments is ‘Primum Non Nocere’ – first, do no harm. In everything we do, we consider what harm could happen, and we work to prevent and mitigate any of that harm coming to be.
Persons with intellectual disabilities such as people with Down’s syndrome or people on the autism spectrum, who are in institutionalised care, require professional care from qualified people such as physiotherapists, caregivers, nurses, and psychiatrists. This professional care is geared towards providing the support that an individual with a specific intellectual disability might need.
It is very rare that a GVI participant will have these types of specialised qualifications and experience. While they might be assisting qualified and experienced professionals, the potential for unskilled participants to cause harm through lack of knowledge or negligence is highly possible. In the light of our no-harm principle, we reached an evolution in understanding that meant we could no longer accept this possibility for harm.
For this reason, we decided to discontinue allowing GVI participants hands-on interaction with persons with disabilities who require higher care and attention due to the extent of their disability. Instead, participants now focus on assisting with options for the professionals to build their own capacity. These options involve skills development workshops, among other things. This shift from a hands-on approach with persons with disabilities to assisting local professionals with capacity building is in line with our third Empowerment Principle: Support.
TRAVEL SAFETY FOR WOMEN AND OTHER VULNERABLE GROUPS
As an organisation that operates significantly in the international travel sector, we pride ourselves on our incredibly high standards of support and safety. These standards apply equally to all of our stakeholders, from participants, to staff, to local community members. However, sometimes there are people that require additional security when travelling abroad. These are most notably vulnerable groups that include solo female travellers, ethnic, religious, or racial minority groups, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
At GVI, we strive to break down barriers that prevent everyone from accessing the opportunities that we are able to provide. Increasing diverse representation and enabling increased inclusion of previously marginalised or underrepresented groups is of key ethical importance for us. Read more about our policy on Diversity and Inclusion.
One of the barriers that people from vulnerable groups might experience when looking into participating on a GVI program is the fear of traveling alone to a foreign country. There can be trepidation about not knowing what will happen. Questions arise like, what is the fall-back plan should anything go wrong? What if they encounter a situation where their vulnerability is exploited by others with negative intentions?
Our enrolment and support staff are equipped to answer questions like this, because they have a full understanding of our strong health and safety protocols. Further, GVI as an organisation is always willing to do our best to provide options and avenues for additional safety and security.
Additional levels of safety and security
Everyone who wants to book onto a GVI program receives all the information they could possibly need before they make a decision. This information includes things like what to expect and details on our health and safety standards. Our Enrolment Managers have thorough knowledge of all the health and safety protocols for every GVI base around the world, and are highly equipped to ease any fears anyone might feel.
For everyone, but particularly people from vulnerable groups, we are always keen to go the extra mile to give all the necessary information. We are also ready to implement additional levels of safety and security for any unique situations.
For example, if a woman expresses that she feels anxious about travelling alone to a GVI base abroad, we will try to connect her with someone else who is travelling to the same base at the same time. Travelling with another like minded person who is going to the same place can provide an extra level of reassurance, safety and security.
Another potential option to assuage anxiety is to provide surety that someone will be at the airport to pick up our participants. This is always a GVI staff member or a trusted and vetted third party transport service provider, provided that you arrive in the dedicated pick up window. On top of all the arrival and transport information we provide, we can direct people to images of previous volunteers being picked up at the same airport. Having an understanding of what the arrival pick-up will look like can go a long way to easing fears about getting to GVI’s base.
Yet another security feature we provide is a 24/7 emergency contact line that is contactable from anywhere in the world. For people from vulnerable groups, we hope that this provides security in the knowledge that we will be there for every single one of our participants through their GVI journey, any time, from anywhere in the world. We always have someone on the line ready to provide support in any kind of situation.
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