When Numbers Eclipse Narratives: A Cultural-Political Critique of the ‘Ethical’ Impacts of Short-Term Experiences in Global Health in Dominican Republic Bateyes

Article Summary by Brenda K. Wilson

With short-term experiences in global health [STEGH] on the rise, it is increasingly important to better understand diverse effects on host populations. Much of the current literature on these issues uses the discipline of ethics to inform right/wrong ethical practice; moving beyond such normative benefit/harm reductionistic framings, this research utilizes a Foucauldian power analysis to more fully understand the discursive and material effects on hosts taking place in and through STEGH. Using qualitative methods, I examine STEGH that send student volunteers from North American universities to the Dominican Republic to participate in student-learning health initiatives aimed at improving the lives of Haitian migrants in impoverished areas known as bateyes. Student and faculty volunteers of STEGH were interviewed to understand their perceptions and experiences in bateyes; likewise, batey residents were interviewed to understand their lived experiences of health and inequality, as well as their perspectives on STEGH. This paper focuses on a subset of findings: volunteers emphasized quantification as a measure of valuable and impactful STEGH activities; however, hosts revealed an altogether different perspective about the value and effects that STEGH confer. My analysis exposed a mismatch between volunteer and host perspectives about STEGH; moreover, my findings make visible various invisible structural harms which emerge through STEGH, despite volunteers’ good intentions. These findings lead me to conclude that conventional approaches of informing “ethical” principles and best practices do not examine power relations and therefore may reinforce rather than reduce the harms and inequalities that STEGH (and the wider global health movement) seeks to eliminate.


Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.


Brenda K WilsonBrenda K. Wilson, PhD is a Postdoctoral Scholar and Lecturer for the Global Health Program at UC-San Diego. Her work focuses on structural violence, with emphasis on the historical, social, ecological, economic, and political determinants of health and inequalities. She brings qualitative methods to bear on the causes, patterns, and consequences of illness among disadvantaged populations (e.g., migrants, racial minorities, working poor). Dr. Wilson has conducted photo-ethnographic fieldwork with Haitian farmworkers in the Dominican Republic (2019) and with migrants in India (2010) to understand how health inequalities are produced and experienced and how they might be mitigated. Her current research examines the health trajectories of forcibly displaced migrants from departure to resettlement, including those who cross the US-Mexico border. Dr. Wilson has a PhD in the Medical/Health Humanities from UT-Medical Branch, MA in Environmental Studies from the University of Manitoba, and BS in Human Biology from Texas State University.

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