The University of Iowa

Doing Harm by Doing Good: Ethics of Students Studying, Volunteering, and Working in Global Communities


The University of Iowa's Global Health Studies Program offers an interdisciplinary approach to the complex processes influencing health and disease around the world. Education, research, and practice in global health places a priority on improving health and achieving equity for all people worldwide. As a result, a growing number of UI students are involved in international experiential learning which includes study abroad, volunteering, internships and research in global communities. Though these student efforts are most often well-intentioned, they raise a multitude of ethical questions which must be addressed.

Ethical concerns are most obvious when students are drawn into inappropriate health related activities abroad for which they have no training or skills (an experience which is looked on very unfavorably by health profession admissions committees), but are also present whenever students attempt to “do good” in global communities in which they are visitors, not residents.

This workshop will help students think through the complex issues involved whenever we try to “help” across geographic and cultural boundaries. The 3-day workshop will include lectures, breakout sessions and discussion involving professionals from the fields of global health, international development, health sciences and higher education. Topics to be addressed include:

  • patient rights versus the promise of “hands-on” experience for untrained undergraduates
  • the pitfalls of voluntourism; substituting ‘free’ foreign labor for paid local employees
  • commercial aspects of study abroad – incentives and recruiting on campus by external contractors; how to select a reputable internship provider
  • online resources which help students become global ambassadors for patient safety
  • basic tools for thinking critically about outcomes


Thursday, Dec. 1: 5:00 - 8:30 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 2: 12:00 - 5:00 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 3: 9:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.

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