My good friend Peter Luckow recently said one of the smartest things I've ever heard about the ethical implications of students engaging in global health work. He said to consider the fact that any research conducted in affiliation with a university - including social science and biomedical research - must be approved by an institutional review board to ensure ethical work. For example, anthropology research is checked to make sure that interview questions are culturally sensitive and will not in any way harm the research participants. This review process is essential to protecting research participants and insuring that the sciences are ethically sound.
His point however, was that no such attention is given to students who engage in international service, especially global health work. There are numerous student groups on the Northwestern campus which send students on "medical mission trips" where medicine and direct medical care are given. Unfortunately, no one regulates this work. No one evaluates the actual costs or benefits to the communities of the students actions. As I've mentioned before on this blog, there is a large potential to inadvertently cause harm through these short term medical volunteer trips.
I think that one could argue that the potential for harm and the ethical implications are far greater for direct medical care than they are for anthropological or other social science research. Yet, the university provides no way to regulate the actions of Northwestern student groups doing global health work.
Should there be an institutional review process for international (or perhaps even domestic) service projects? Is it the university's responsibility to regulate the service work conducted by student groups?
I'd love to hear what you think.