One of the better problems to have?

​By Lawrence Loh, MD MPH


Finally got around to uploading tape from my talk at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine last month. We managed to film most of it, except for a small little portion of the talk where I talked about the work of The 53rd Week in regards to awareness/advocacy, innovation/collaboration, and research into the phenomenon of short-term global health experiences.

One of the key points I noted during the recording of my speech was nearer to the end (in this part here) where I highlighted two quotes by Lee Iacocca and Harry Truman. The basic argument I advanced was the need for people to realize that short-term experiences arent evil or inherently terrible as the popular media and various organizations in the global health community have taken on. (I spoke with the director of global health programs at a Canadian university this past week, who kindly pointed out yeah, short-term work tends to take quite the beating in the media!) In the video, I highlight that if anything, its a beautiful thing that people want to invest their time and effort, and concurrently it is tragic that it is not having the imagined / desired impact that it could have on the receiving communities.

This is what were trying to address through our three strategies at The 53rd Week:

  • Awareness and advocacy: As we described in part 1 of our LSHTM talk, short-term experiences are growing in popularity and present a two part problem - there is a large group of volunteers who are interested but unaware of the nuanced harms and issues that surround their participation, while there is a growing, vocal group of people who see short-term experiences as extremely useless and harmful. There is very little between these two extremes, and its almost a case of pushing people towards the mean - helping the blissfully ignorant realize their limitations and harms, and helping the growing, vocal minority against such trips to see that saying dont go is not a solution. Hence the talks and the outreach.
  • Innovation and collaboration: We believe that if done right, short-term experiences can retain benefits for the individuals and the institutions while actually beginning to have meaningful, long-term impacts in developing world communities that receive them. To do that, we need to come up with models that are effective in reaching these outcomes. We describe, in part 3 of our talk, a collaborative model were in the midst of building with partners in the Dominican Republic. Even in the early phases we have seen lots of excitement and interest. Itll be interesting to see where it all goes in a few years.
  • Research: Finally, The 53rd Week is doing applied research into the questions of a coordinated model. Why are short-term trips so popular? If were going to coordinate them, what interventions are amenable to these? What needs / issues can short-term trips address (if they were fitted appropriately?) If were going to talk solutions, we are going to need to look with evidence and a critical eye to see exactly how and where we can make those contributions (how we can best use the investments put in by all parties.) Its all about shifting the balance of benefits, as part 2 addresses here.

All taken together, The 53rd Week challenges the overall assumptions of two different parties: people who think short-term trips are all good and world-saving, and people who think that short-term trips have no redeeming value. The reality likely lies somewhere in between. Its time for us to work together in finding out what that in-between is.

The videos for our talks at LSHTM, in order, here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.


Dr. Lawrence Loh is Director of Operations at The 53rd Week.

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