“Just collecting data for the white guys”: Community Impacts of Service-learning in Africa

January 21, 2014

By Jessica Arends

“Do local communities have the ability to reject or resist the service being provided? What degree of power exists or is perceived to exist between community members and students and faculty? This is especially relevant in post-colonial regions such as Africa which have survived severe exploitation and unethical research.”

Global service-learning aims to address a myriad of community needs, including alleviating poverty, addressing social justice, providing food and shelter, strengthening global partnerships and developing economic or democratic capacity.  While we know service-learning can greatly enrich student learning outcomes, the influence of this programming on communities abroad remains vastly understudied (Crabtree, 2008; Erasmus, 2010; Grusky, 2000; Illich, 1990; Kiely & Hartman, 2010; Prins & Webster, 2010; Stoecker & Tryon, 2009). These unknown impacts—be they positive, negative or neutral, are especially problematic in post-colonial societies. Service sites abroad may become “small theaters that recreate historic cultural misunderstandings and simplistic stereotypes” which then “replay the huge disparities in income and opportunity that characterize North-South relations today” (Grusky, 2000, p. 2).

To gain insight into how global service-learning affects local communities, I lived in a home for street children in eastern Africa for a month, which hosts several university service-learning groups each year. The organization provides shelter, food, education and business development for children and youth orphaned by AIDS, displaced parents or economic circumstances. I conducted a qualitative assessment by interviewing faculty, students and local community members at the site. During my stay, 78 service-learning faculty, undergraduate students and graduate students from three American universities spent three to five weeks at the center working on various projects and interacting with the children. These projects included building structures, developing education curriculum and conducting research, each related to coursework in community development, leadership, agriculture, engineering, or economics. (Note: The organization, country and those interviewed are intentionally not named to protect their identity).  I aimed to answer: What are the community impacts of service-learning at this site, be they negative, positive, or neutral? Do local communities have the ability to reject or resist the service being provided?

Responding to the call for service-learning research to move beyond the study of frequency and rate of a particular phenomenon to address social issues pertinent to both students and communities (Arends, 2013; Erasmus, 2012; Kahn, 2010; Kiely & Hartman, 2010), I designed a qualitative study based on dialogue with participants (Forester, 1999; Glesne, 2011). To build relationships and establish rapport, I worked each day alongside students, staff and volunteers in the organization’s garden, kitchen and art center. During the fourth week of my visit, I asked 18 staff members and volunteers for interviews, eleven of which consented. Before, during and after the trip, I interviewed three faculty members and 17 students who were involved in one particular course. In this post, I describe several of the reported and observed impacts, including: economic support, affection, and damage. I also reflect upon my observations of how power was negotiated between service-learning students and faculty and community members.

Positive Impacts: We feel it when you go

During interviews, staff members and volunteers at the center named several beneficial outcomes including: financial support, partnerships with local universities, increased leadership capacities, boosting the self-esteem of the children and youth, and language skills. The most frequently mentioned impact was the direct economic benefits. For instance, one group of students and faculty pay a small fee for meals at the organization which then supports operation expenses. As one staff member commented: “If [this university] pulled out their support, the center would start from zero again. There are no other funds right now to keep it functioning” (interviewee 6).

The second most frequently mentioned beneficial impact was the affection students provide for the children. The American students are seen as a “big positive influence” and “mentors” because they “show interest” in the children and “give a few loving words of kindness” (interviewee 2). Also, “the kids really like you, they miss you. You engage them in constructive conversations that make them grow; we should get more of you. We feel it when you go” (interviewee 6).

Another positive impact mentioned was how student groups provided outreach efforts for the organization. The presence of white foreigners attracts the attention of street children who may not know about the organization. While downtown, street children approached us for money or food assuming we were tourists. The students then tell them about the organization and offer to send a car to bring them at a later date. This mechanism of publicizing the organization and its services to the local community is seen as a positive impact by the organization staff. “You bring new kids [from town] to the [organization] because you show that you care” (interviewee 9). Those interviewed also described how the increased presence of Americans has attracted more financial support: “the community perspective has changed. It is now becoming a worthy idea to invest in the [center]. First people thought [the university] was bringing money, now they think: ‘if the US is coming, why not me?’” (interviewee 2).

In addition to short term benefits, the potential for long-term benefits was also shared by staff members interviewed. For instance, the service-learning programs support “income generating activities, business planning, how to manage work, write a business plan. Maybe they don’t implement everything but it is still helping to improve things for the youth” (interviewee 9).

Not all service-learning groups are seen as the same

During the interviews, community members did make a distinction between the different groups of service-learning students that visited the center. “One group is very friendly, social, kind, loving, and caring. You humble yourselves to our level, you understand us. We have seen people from the US who can’t interact. You can adjust and take us how we are. You are resourceful (interviewee 6).” This was in contrast to another group of students and faculty which was described as “rude” and “disrespectful” as they ignored local customs of social behavior, such as acknowledging people when walking by (interviewee 6). They appear “mean–even to themselves” thus, “we’ve not enjoyed their coming” (interviewee 9). This illustrates how not all service-learning groups are viewed the same by the community and how students and faculty behavior and cultural sensitivity while abroad varies considerably.

I also asked about how service-learning participants impact the local resources, especially since things like water, electricity and food are in short supply for the residents. One staff member shared that some groups “use our water, space on our land, and electricity, but they don’t give back” (interviewee 9). However, the use of resources by another group was seen as valuable because they were developing relationships with the children at the center: “You are using what you are giving. If you give something you are given something back. You have to come because you have to be with the kids to understand them. So being here is important, the demands on resources don’t outweigh the value of your presence” (interviewee 9). This shows how intangible impacts such as affection and relationships are highly valued by this community member and that these benefits are worthy of the demand service-learning faculty and students place on local resources.

Negative impacts: Doing damage

In addition to positive impacts, staff and volunteers reported how service-learning visitors negatively influence the organization. For example, romantic relationships and the use of drugs have occurred between students and residents and staff members, which is against the organization’s policy. Some of the youth think if they engage in this behavior with an American student, they will be less likely to be penalized. This impact was also raised during an interview with a faculty member who “was surprised [the students] could do so much damage.”

Another negative impact described by community members was how the presence of foreigners influences how the organization is viewed by the local community. For example, “if [the community] sees more tourists coming to the center, they don’t see projects, they see money” (interviewee 2). When the staff asks for local support, “the [community] says: ‘there were 50 white people and now you say you don’t have money?’ That is a negative impact” (interviewee 2). This is especially interesting as the presence of foreigners were viewed as both a positive and negative impact.

This response leads me to my second research question: Do local communities have the ability to reject or resist the service being provided? What degree of power exists or is perceived to exist between community members and students and faculty? This is especially relevant in post-colonial regions such as Africa which have survived severe exploitation and unethical research.

Also, community members are often portrayed in the service-learning literature as helpless and vulnerable to the imposition of westernization or further colonization (Crabtree, 2008; Grusky, 2000). Language used in course syllabi to describe community members being served includes “the poor,” “marginalized,” and “those struggling against deprivation” (Campus Compact, 2010). By using the term service, it is assumed that the community lacks a certain material, idea or resource in order to function or be successful (Davis, 2006) and will benefit from the resources the academy possesses. Indeed, service-learning originated from the assumption that those with more power and resources “help” those who do not possess the same knowledge and skills or have less power (Kahne & Westheimer, 1996). So what power do local communities have within the service-learning relationships? Do they have the ability to say no or scrutinize the service-learning programs that are taking place?

During my interviews, I did find evidence of agency among community members, or the ability to resist or object to service-learning programming. For instance, one volunteer described how he has spoken with a faculty member about a lack of reciprocity and respect. “The [local people] share their stories and their personal information, but there is no appreciation or compensation;” they feel like “they are just collecting data for the white guys. Our interaction is very limited, very hard” (interviewee 9). He said the students and faculty were “bringing [their country] over here” and asked the faculty member if the group could change their behavior as it was “disrespectful and causing problems” (interviewee 9). When he was told there would not be a change, he and the other locals who work with that group decided they “are ready to start saying no” when asked for further collaboration (interviewee 9). This causes us to question how many other service-learning community members share this sentiment and if they do, how do we know? Are we able to first hear and then respond to these concerns from our community partners?

Implications for practice:

Although this data is quite context-specific, I believe the following suggestions gleaned from this study are relevant to any global service-learning course:

Have students and faculty learn and practice culturally–appropriate behavior

This data illustrates why in-depth knowledge of the host culture is an integral aspect of pre-departure preparation for both students and faculty. The university is responsible for teaching not just the history, economic situation or language of a service-learning site, but the social customs and behavior expectations.  Otherwise, people experience miscommunication, misunderstanding and feel they are taking advantage of.

Have a third party conduct community impact assessment

Whether it be formal or informal, we need to know how we are influencing communities especially when conducting service-learning abroad. There is too much risk involved in North-South relations not to do so. This means taking time to understand a culture and to listen carefully. Could there be a way for us to invest as much time into an assessment as we do into the design and implementation of service-learning courses?

Further research

This study is by no means conclusive. Given more time and additional interviews, findings could be greatly enriched by further research. However this data does shed light into the void of service-learning community impacts research. It provides some idea as to how global service-learning is perceived by a handful of community members and how their responses could help us to improve our global relationships. I look forward to investigating these queries further and continuing to contribute to this imperative dialogue.


Jessica Arends is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction with a minor in Comparative and International Education at Penn State. Her research investigates how faculty members conceptualize global service-learning for the purpose of transformational outcomes. Her other research projects include assessing students and community impacts of service-learning both locally and abroad. She has served on the Penn State Student Engagement and Service-Learning Taskforce and created a Social Justice Working Group in the College of Education.  She currently serves as a Graduate Assistant for the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence to support faculty development. She is the recipient of the College of Education 2012 Dissertation Initiation Research Grant and the “On the Spot” Outreach Award for civic engagement at Penn State.


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