A group of Northwestern University undergraduates arrived in a West African village almost 10 years ago expecting to find a thriving health clinic -- but instead the facility built earlier as a student project was shuttered.

 

Unbeknownst to the students when they undertook the project, the villagers already had access to a existing health clinic.


That fundamental mistake in planning spurred the creation of GlobeMed, at the time a small Northwestern-born organization that has mushroomed over the last decade to comprise more than 50 chapters on campuses across the country.


Created in 2006, GlobeMed was founded on the premise that local people need to lead the way in order for aid projects to succeed. Nine years later, over a weekend in late March, the 2015 GlobeMed Summit brought together more than 250 students and alumni delegates from 45 universities and 23 speakers.


The evolution of GlobeMed, conceived soon after what would become the organization’s first annual summit in Evanston, is striking.


With backing from the University, the student-led nonprofit partners with grassroots organizations in the developing world to promote health equality. Today, there are 56 university-based chapters working on four continents in 19 countries in the developing world. More than 2,000 students participate in the program every year.


“By the time we get to 2030, there are going to be somewhere around 20,000 students who have come through the GlobeMed program, who have worked hand-in-hand with people in the developing world,” said Brian Hanson, chair of the GlobeMed Board and director of programs, research and strategic planning for the Buffett Institute at Northwestern.


The lesson the students learned back in 2006 was profound, he said.


When pressed about why no one in the village warned the students that the clinic was bound to fail, one villager explained, “We are Africans; we do what our donors tell us to do.”


“That was the light bulb moment,” he said. “Usually people from the outside identify a problem. Then, the solution to the problem is imposed from the outside, often with inadequate input from the most important people -- the people living in that community.”


The students took critical cues from small grassroots organizations led by dynamic and visionary local leaders who already were making a difference, Hanson said, “whether we are talking about the rainforests of El Salvador or the streets of Thailand.”


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