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Logo of bmjThis ArticleThe BMJ
BMJ. 2007 July 28; 335(7612): 202.
PMCID: PMC1934464

Can I help you?

Robert Todd Scott, retired GP, Glasgow, Jane Bates, manager, Tiyanjane Clinic, and Jessica Mack, programme manager, palliative care

So, you want to work for a few weeks, maybe as an “expert,” in a developing country? Fine. Drawing on our experiences of both giving and receiving such help in several sub-Saharan countries, we can give some tips on making your trip a success.

  • Get real—Don't expect to make a big difference. You won't. If you're lucky, you might make a tiny one.
  • Be self sufficient—Don't expect to be looked after. Attending to the needs of visitors can be exhausting and not worth the effort. Arrange your own travel and accommodation via the internet. There will be taxis at the airport: take one.
  • Forget funding—NGOs will not employ strangers for a few weeks. They can be surprisingly bureaucratic and will demand reports. Pay your own way. You can go anywhere for less than $1000 (£500) and then live well on $50 a day.
  • Forget litigation—Your defence society may look sympathetically on voluntary work. If not, don't worry. You will not be sued.
  • Forget snakes, just get the jabs and take the tablets—The biggest risks are malaria, alcohol, and road accidents. Get off the minibus if the driver is intoxicated.
  • Take your mobile phone—You are visiting a different continent, not a different planet.
  • Stay celibate—Take post-exposure prophylaxis if you will be risking HIV infection at work.
  • Learn the lingo—Trying to greet patients in their language will raise a laugh and be appreciated.
  • Stay cool—When thwarted by the lack of drugs or baffled by Byzantine care systems, do not vent your frustrations on the staff. They may share your feelings. Remember life went on there before you arrived and will do so again after you leave.
  • Take a torch—In towns do not go out after dark: you may escape being mugged, but falling into a pothole is quite likely. Arrange personal medical insurance.
  • Be honest—Do not promise further help unless you know you will deliver.
  • Be polite—Ask permission before taking photographs of patients.
  • Provide feedback—Once you're back home, email comments, photographs, and thanks to your hosts. Copy any reports or articles on the trip to them.
  • Compromise—Keep asking how you can help. Do not do only what you want to. Try to do what those who work there want.
  • Have fun—Keep your sense of humour. If you don't have one, don't go.

Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group