The Economy of Global Service Learning and the Problem of Silence

November 18, 2013

By Cynthia Toms

“…Privilege is not visible to its holder; it is merely there, a part of the world, a way of life, simply the way things are. Others have a lack, an absence, a deficiency.” (Wildman, S., & Davis, A., 2008)

The terms global engagement and social responsibility have become commonplace in higher education rhetoric. Curricula and pedagogies that help students engage the social, civic, and economic challenges of a diverse and unequal world not only serve as touchstones for our institutional missions, they are increasingly prominent among funding and expansion priorities. This can be witnessed in large-scale efforts such as the Carnegie Foundation’s recent development of the Community Engagement Elective Classification, [1] as well as communities of scholars gathering to consider the role of the university in 21st century global development.[2]

As the vision becomes newly affixed on global learning, institutes of higher learning seek development partnerships that contribute to social capital networks, knowledge advancement, and inter-disciplinary research collaborations (Cloete, et al, 2011). Consequently, many departments, service-learning not withstanding, have been swept into a race to establish global presence both on campus and across the world.

However, in the fury to internationalize, colleges and universities have yet to consider the economic impact of another burgeoning resource: student volunteers and service-learners (IVS). These students, participating in both credit bearing and non-credit bearing college programs, travel to resource-poor communities with hopes of actively contributing to development and prosperity through international service-learning and volunteer programs[3]. As increasing numbers of students participate in these global service programs, they provide multiple revenue streams that benefit local food markets, artisans, development cooperatives, and homestay families.

As my research recently found, the money provided by these IVS students creates an economic circle that benefits women (directly) in the form of homestay compensation for placements and spreads throughout the community. The resource not only serves to improve conditions directly (through food and supplies for the family), the money is also invested in the comfort of the current student along with home improvements to attract future IVS placements.

Consequently, I was surprised to discover that communities listed the economic gain as the primary benefit that volunteers and students bring to their communities, while most institutes of higher learning did not discuss the economic impact students have on community development.

Brief Design Overview:

Divergent from most studies within higher education, my research aimed to raise the voice of the community and gain a better understanding of the linkages between student volunteers and participatory development. It is unclear whether communities differentiate between students placed as part of a formal university program and those placed as volunteers (Stoeker, R., & Tyron, E. A., 2009). Consequently, the impact of both international service-learning and student volunteers on participatory development were included in the term “IVS.” The study makes an intentional shift away from student learning outcomes to examine the voice and perception of host communities and grassroots civil society organizations that receive IVS students.

The theoretical foundation drew on IVS literature as well as participatory development strategies such as asset-based community development (ABCD) theories in order to determine the enabling and disabling effects of students in resource-poor communities.

Within the field of IVS, there remains a need for holistic research that is comparative and longitudinal (McBride, et al, 2010; Hodgkinson, 2004). A conceptual framework (below) released by leading researchers in 2008 suggests that outcomes for host communities, volunteers, and sending communities vary depending on individual and institutional attributes and capacity (Sherraden, et al, 2008).

Despite the best intentions, broad scale research projects attempting to assess volunteer impact, program design components, and host community outcomes have fallen short of producing results.SherradenLoughMcBride1

Utilizing the final two categories of this conceptual model, my researched utilized multiple case study analysis to examine how three organizations matched in IVS action (service activity, duration of service, immersion level as defined by individual versus group homestay placement, and faculty led versus individual service activity) impacted host community outcomes (conceptual model below). My study explored the relationship between international volunteerism and service, community perceptions and participatory development in Costa Rica. In conditions in which a group, organization, or social or political phenomena is examined, a case study is often utilized to reflect the phenomena from multiple vantage points and provide varied descriptions (Yin, 2003). Data was collected using document analysis, participant observation, and 97 interviews from three communities on a sliding scale of community income and development organization. Descriptive (or topical) coding was use to identify initial themes.


Multiple themes emerged. For this post, I will focus on the Economic Circle surrounding ISV.

Research in three rural communities in Costa Rica that regularly receive students revealed that economic benefit was routinely the first and greatest reason for accepting volunteers and service-learners.  In all three cases, communities responded to student resources by organizing social institutions to oversee students and resources provided through their placement programs. In two communities, a women’s co-op evolved to distribute volunteers equitably to homestays; in the third, a community-appointed liaison was elected to coordinate the agreements, finances, and relationships between homestay families and volunteer sending institutes.

Students and volunteers placed in the community provided money that went directly to homestay mothers. This resource served to empower women as actors in the development process through contributing to their family’s income as well as the local economy. Both men and women (beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries in the community) reported that the money went to both the family and to improve the home in order to attract future volunteers and make them comfortable. Money also went to purchase food that volunteers prefer (cereal, fresh fruit), which was perceived as a way to make volunteers more comfortable. Women reported that the money gave them a sense of economic agency and allowed them to contribute the family, particularly since most women do not work outside the home in three communities examined.

The revenue that flowed into the community created an economic circle. The money from volunteers was used to directly benefit the family and community, but it was also utilized to improve conditions to attract more volunteers. Women were the primary conduit of this economic development, making them the center of economic development through ISV (see Economic Circle for ISLV below).TomsChart


Subpoint 1:

Communities revealed that they had no input for setting placement fees. When interviewing beneficiaries, members of all three communities noted that higher education institutes or Voluntary Service Organizations (VSOs) set the fees. Two of the three communities felt that the fees were not enough to cover the service provided (eg., food was expensive, short term stays required a lot of preparation for small return).

Subpoint 2:

Community members (beneficiary and non-beneficiary) expressed a desire to attract more short-term volunteers (less than 4 months) over long-term volunteers (more than four months) because they paid more per night. This was in contrast to their reports that they remained in contact more often, learned more language, and felt greater benefit to youth in the community with long-term volunteers. In essence, despite deeper relational benefits, community members preferred ISV organizations and students that gave the greatest economic benefit.

Subpoint 3:

In two communities, ISV reports were often made in comparison to short-term, church-based missions teams that were perceived as not contributing to the local economy. One community leader noted that mission teams stayed at churches and not in homestays. As a result, they were not looked upon in a favorable way, often times not even within the congregation they visit, because the resources are not spread equitably throughout the community.

What should this tell us about the impacts of IVS? (Discussion)

The data demonstrates that communities organize, as do higher education institutes, to respond to the signs of the times and community needs. Secondly, and most importantly, it should tell us that communities clearly see the economic benefit of ISV and take measures to ensure equitable sharing throughout the whole community.

For community members, both direct beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries, the economic gain brought by international service-learning and volunteerism was the primary means of reciprocity. Despite reports for relationship building, cultural competence, capacity building, and language learning being greater through long-term volunteers, community members preferred short-term IVS placements because they paid more to the host family.

However, colleges and universities do not often (dare I say, ever) discuss the economic benefit to communities that results from student and volunteer presence in a community. Beyond limited domestic work on engaged learning economies, communities of US scholars and practitioners working to place ISV students are hesitant to discuss this benefit. Rather, we focus the importance of reciprocity in the form of cultural exchange, community development, capacity building, and language learning. Therefore, the question and clarion call that we, as US scholars, practitioners, and sending agencies must consider is this: “Why are we so reluctant to talk about the economy surrounding international service learning and volunteerism? If community partners are eager and willing to discuss the money that drives this endeavor, why do we meet them with silence and ignore the economic circle of ISV?”

Where’s the dis-connect?  Is there danger in our choice to remain silent and refrain from discussing the importance of the economic impact as part of reciprocal relationships with community partners when they are willing to admit it as the most important component? Furthermore, does the finding that some communities feel their voice is not included in setting program fees spur us to examine our organizational pathways?

In their work entitled, “Making Systems of Privilege Invisible,” Wildman and Davis write, “Depending on the number of privileges someone has, she or he may experience the power of choosing the types of struggles in which to engage. Even this choice may be masked as identification with oppression, thereby making the privilege that enables the choice invisible (p.114). By choosing not to recognize the economic benefit for communities and engaging with them in the struggle toward better equity in partnerships, we choose silence over affirmation and status-quo over just action. Our silence ensures that this economic exchange is invisible and that the scales of privilege and power remain imbalanced.

So What? Now What? Is Silence Really a Problem? (Challenges Ahead):

The community of practitioners and scholars surrounding global service learning remains a place of deep-conviction and committed pursuit of ethical learning for both students and communities. There is no better evidence of this than the Fair Trade Learning Standards or in the recent discussions shared by the concerned, intentional and socially responsible international educators at the International Service Learning Summit hosted by Northwestern University’s Center for Global Engagement. I believe this community, deeply concerned with power and privilege inherent in systems, strives to ensure equity and voice for communities in the economic circle. Therefore our next natural step may be to collectively develop methods and tools to assess community impact and better represent host community voice in program design and delivery.


[1] Defined as, “the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.”

[3] My research did not limit data collections to the strict definition of international service-learning, volunteerism, or community service. Although ISL and Volunteer placement providers and Western organizations delineate the differences between missionary service, voluntourism, voluntary service, community service, and service-learning, most communities in developing countries do not. Stoeker, et al., (2009) found that US organizations make virtually no distinction between service learners and volunteers. Although academic institutions are concerned with credit versus non-credit bearing, the real concern for organizations has to do with commitment and duration (p. 12).  My own research underscored these findings. The community members and organizations that I examined made little to no distinction between the impact of students placed as part of credit bearing versus non-credit bearing courses nor those students placed in the community by a university directly versus those working through a tertiary provider. The only exception reported was that universities generally required more paper work and time for reporting. It is also important to consider that volunteer sending organizations (VSO) have extensive preparation and training programs similar to university ISL programs. Furthermore, many VSO’s began as community development institutes and global civil society organizations (eg., Foundation for Sustainable Development, Mercy Corps, Earthwatch, Catholic Volunteer Services), benefiting from prolonged engagement within communities. Consequently, I operationally utilized the term international volunteering and service (IVS) to international volunteering and service (IVS) to encompass service learning, international service learning, and international volunteers.


Cloete, N, Bailey, T and Maassen, P (2011) Universities and Economic Development in Africa: Pact, academic core and coordination, Wynberg: Centre for Higher Education Transformation, (accessed 14 November 2013).

Hodgkinson, V. A. (2004). Developing a research agenda on civic service. Nonprofit and Voluntary  Sector Quarterly, 33(4), 184S-197S.

McBride, A. M. & Lough, B. J. (2010). Access to international volunteering. Nonprofit Management & Leadership, 21(2), 195-208.

Sherraden, M. S., Lough, B. J., & McBride, A. M. (2008). Effects of international volunteering and service: Individual and institutional predictors.VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 19(4), 395-421.

Stoeker, R., & Tryon, E. A. (2009). The Unheard Voices: Community Organizations and Service Learning. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, PA.

Wildman, S., & Davis, A. (2008) “Making Systems of Privilege Visible” in White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism. Rothernberg, P. S., Ed. (2008)Worth Publishers, New York, NY.

Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research: Design and methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Cynthia Toms recently finished five years as Director of Educational Immersions at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns. In January, she will join the faculty of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Previously, Cynthia taught cross-cultural immersion skills and facilitated experiential learning environments at Peking University in Beijing, China, and was the Associate Director of the Uganda Studies Program located in Mukono, Uganda. She has contributed to several journals and recently edited the book, Transformations at the Edge of the World: Forming Global Christians through the Study Abroad Experience. Cynthia is a PhD Candidate in Higher Education at Azusa Pacific University; her dissertation is entitled, “The Impact of International Volunteerism and Service on Participatory Community Development in Latin America.”

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