Science & Research

Film discusses downsides to volunteerism

By
Contributing Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2012

 

“A Part of the World,” a short documentary released online today, uses the story of Clinical Assistant Professor of Family Medicine Lisa Denny’s medical aid efforts in Haiti to explore the moral question of how volunteers can help without causing harm.

The film traces Denny’s path to working in Haiti. She first engaged with the Creole language during a summer job in a Boston hospital. The medical know-how and language skills she developed enabled her to treat Haitian patients and to listen to their stories.

The film focuses on the struggle between helping and harming in volunteerism. While Denny acknowledges in the film that volunteering can feel like “very pure giving,” its effects are not all positive. The free goods and services volunteers provide to impoverished countries like Haiti can damage their fragile economies, taking away from jobs, stores and exports. Denny’s voice comes together with those of other volunteers and a Haitian doctor as they struggle with a crucial question in volunteer work: “Is it possible to truly give altruistically?”

It was after her first trip to Haiti that Denny said she started to recognize the irony in relief. “I was receiving all this positive reinforcement from friends and mentors, but I felt so ineffective,” she told The Herald. She added that volunteering tends to be perceived as a truly wonderful thing, but said it is necessary to recognize the limits of volunteering.

When the filmmakers started production on the film, they originally intended to raise awareness about the aftermath of the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, Denny said. But the film’s focus ultimately became more about this intrinsic issue with volunteerism, she said. The film will ideally make people think about how they can face this unresolved challenge, she added, noting that for both the film and the issue itself, there is “not a clean wrap up.”

Denny said she plans to continue her service work in Haiti and to seek new ways to benefit its people.

“It can be easy to get wrapped up in the little things, and it gets hard to take a step back,” she said, adding that she hopes to integrate values and appreciation of social justice into her everyday life, especially for her three children. The volunteers in the film similarly express the importance of appreciation, suggesting they received more from the Haitians’ determined gratitude and persistence than they could offer in return.

In the film, Denny notes the significance of patients’ personal narratives.

“Having one’s stories told is therapeutic – once you share your suffering, it decreases a little bit,” she told The Herald. “It was pretty powerful for the people to have this person, this American doctor, actually sit there to listen to and care about their problems. I’m hoping that having the film crew there and having an opportunity for the whole world to witness their suffering will be therapeutic on an even bigger scale.”