Delayed Reflection – Assessing the longer-term impact of intercultural learning
It’s now been almost three years since I first arrived in Chiang Mai in Thailand for an eight week internship with MPlus+, an organization working for LGBT health and HIV prevention in the region. The experience was undoubtedly enriching and eye opening, and following it I wrote reflective posts on those experiences on their impact on me. Lately, I was at a talk by Dr Matt Baillie Smith on ‘Thinking Differently about International Volunteering’, which considered the longer term impact of volunteering abroad, something which can often be neglected by the media. The talk and discussion around this really made me reflect on my own experiences and those of others, and how they leave an indelible mark on one’s personal and professional life, that last far beyond the immediate period after returning home.
For many, the experience abroad gives new thoughts and ideas on how to implement change at home and abroad. The motto of global citizenship is ‘Think global, act local’ and I feel that having those experiences abroad shows you both the similarities in the challenges we face and how different approaches and strategies are used to address those challenges, offering us lessons to bring home and to bring from home. I’ve written more about this positive feedback loop in another blog.
As an example, my work was with HIV prevention among high risk groups, an issue which affects many people in Chiang Mai and in Ireland. In both cultures, attitudes, behaviours and stigma play a huge role in facilitating the prevention and treatment of the disease. However, I found both cultures used slightly different approaches in tackling the epidemic, both successful but in different ways.
In terms of attitudes, the stigmatization of HIV is a global problem affecting rates of prevention, testing and treatment. Sometimes when stigma is so prevalent, it can be easier to ignore the reality by not testing or engaging with services. This is such a vicious cycle because effective treatment not only vastly improves a person’s wellbeing and health, but also drastically reduces the risk of transmission. In fact, when a person on effective treatment reaches an undetectable viral load, they cannot transmit the virus (I have written more on this in other blogs). While the extent of stigma may differ between risk groups and populations in Thailand and Ireland, both countries are still burdened by it. The impact of stigma and its forms are well captured on the Avert website.
As such, while both countries face challenges in addressing barriers to prevention, testing, and treatment, the means by which they addressed these challenges differed, and that for me was exciting. In Ireland, social media was used to great effect to increase testing rates, advertising on dating and hook-up apps to capture those at higher risk. While from my perspective, social media wasn’t as strongly utilized in Chiang Mai at the time, there were other strategies being used that I hadn’t experienced at home. One was peer mobilization: the idea that you incentivize one person in a particular group to test and stay in contact and have their friends or peers test. This form of outreach not only allows a more personable and longer term connection to a group than perhaps social media posting does, but also challenges the stigma and silence around HIV. Another was a competition called ‘Miss Healthy Thailand’ which aimed to promote positive visibility and empowerment of trans women in Thailand, as well as incorporate workshops in HIV prevention, health and wellbeing. I learned a huge amount from this event, and following this from events in Ireland which aim to empower and utilize cultural and social factors in getting the message of HIV prevention, testing and treatment across, as well as tackling stigma and discrimination. I have written more on this in another blog.
Additionally, the experience abroad is also a fantastic way to catalyse active citizenship in returned volunteers, both in terms of local community issues and in issues of international importance. The global citizen award is an incredibly concrete way of incentivizing and capturing this. While abroad, many volunteers gain new skills in workshop delivery, organization and administration that they can bring back home. Similarly, the time spent away from home offers people a chance to reflect on our own culture and how we get involved in local issues. With those ideas in mind, coupled with the incentive of the global citizen award, returned volunteers can delve into new projects at home with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and different skills and background to bring to the volunteer organization, whatever it may be. Even meeting other volunteers abroad and seeing how they are involved with organizations at home can help incubate this sense of active citizenship which can hugely benefit our communities back home over the long term.
Lastly, the sense of adventure and excitement from travelling abroad at that stage might instill a lasting passion for global citizenship. As such, the volunteer may work further with their local community or a community abroad, helping to form partnerships and make greater contributions given their increased base of experiences and skills. There are countless examples of people who volunteered abroad as students, and then continued their passion for global citizenship years later by engaging with other communities on a long term basis, this time with a greater base of skills and experiences to draw from and add to.
In sum, the power of intercultural learning may not be best captured by looking at just the immediate accomplishments from the project. In fact, when we consider the longer term impact on the volunteer, their later contributions to their home communities and the possibility of returning and forming partnerships abroad at a later stage in their career, the dividends from volunteering to both the local and international community may be much more profound indeed.
Name: Cormac Everard
Award: Gold Award