Listening to Community Voices in International Service

January 27, 2014

“Volunteers do not make it better.  They come and then they leave.  When we sit here we are free.  If a volunteer wants to come and ask us what to do, we can tell them something.  We just like them to visit, but when they leave things are the same.”

                                                             – A group of women in a South African community

 “They are building buildings while our children are dying. They care about buildings, but not about souls.”

–  Director of a South African rural orphanage

 “Ten volunteers are coming next week!  Who wants them?’ the NGO representative says at the bi-weekly meetings. “They don’t ask us (in advance if we need them or want them),” she stated, “it’s o.k. if they want to come, but I don’t know why they are here.”

–  Principal of a daycare center in a South African township

By Erika Nelson 

International volunteering and service learning have long operated on the assumption of mutual benefit between students and local communities, with scholars taking for granted that any help given to poor communities must be better than no help at all (Kennedy & Dornan, 2009).  Interviews that resulted in the quotes above were gathered while doing research in South Africa on the community perspective toward development efforts. These and many other recipients of service learning efforts simply did not want the students/volunteers to be there at all, or were at least ambivalent to their presence. The arrival of volunteers, they claim, can create extra work, conflicts over limited energy and resources, and come with the expectation of working alongside students (reciprocal exchanges). Once the students are gone, communities are expected to maintain and bear the cost of upkeep of the resulting product.  While these examples seem over-negative, they were not difficult to gather or understand, and point to the need for practitioners to take the time to get to know the communities they are engaging with, and perhaps develop long-term relationships that allow for the assessment of benefits over time.


I became interested in the impacts of student volunteer service in South Africa while working and living at a rural non-profit development program that hosted students and tourists for various lengths of stay.  Having worked with international student exchange, as well as leading a service program to Ghana, the question of whether all the time, energy, and money spent by international volunteers and students was “making a difference” became an urgent issue (airfare from the US to South Africa alone is more than the average South African could make in two years). This time, I was living amongst the people who were the targets of student learning and service, and informal participant observation highlighted the unconscious negative consequences made by American students on local patterns of life, in spite of good intentions.  I found that I shared much of the villagers’ baffled responses to volunteer actions and behavior, and felt embarrassed by the cultural misunderstandings and arrogance.

Local people would come to me and inquire, “Why do volunteers spend so much money to come here?” and “why does (she) want to practice making things in our village? to “Don’t you have poor people in America? Why doesn’t somebody help them?” These questions raise valid concerns, but also provide invaluable insight into how a selfless gift of service may be perceived and misunderstood. They should also give program practitioners pause. For me, as an international education professional, social scientist, and volunteer, finding answers to these questions on behalf of the people became a personal responsibility.

The author with a principal of a daycare center and children in Phillipi Township near Cape Town, South Africa.

I returned to South Africa 5 years later to do graduate research in Geography, with a goal of documenting and giving voice the community perspective on volunteer development efforts, as well as understanding why these efforts seem to be falling short of their intended goal of mutuality and even sustainable development. Being an outsider living in another country allows one to bear witness over time to community-based interventions that disintegrate, in spite of initial positive results. Examples include poorly designed orphanages, planting trees not suitable for the climate, clinics that lack doctors or are too far from needy people, or solar panels that require costly replacement parts. These kinds of interventions simply create little long-term improvement in people’s lives.  In three case studies I witnessed unsustainable projects, such as buildings designed to be environmentally-friendly that were infested with termites and built where water drained into foundations. I also heard stories about a lack of planning based on community needs, and watched while a group of experienced women were marginalized in their own community by enthusiastic college students over-riding their supervision. Worse, I experienced whole families left further dis-empowered; waiting for the next group of students to come along with gifts of cash and other material resources.  Increasingly, these are some of the development issues that service learning strives to address, in spite of a lack of success stories on which to draw.

My first major finding was that the South Africans I interviewed  – across three project sites – make no distinction between a student, a tourist, a volunteer, or an NGO/development worker.  From their perspective, visitors are nothing more than a procession of white faces, asking questions (almost always unable to speak a local language), who hopefully open their wallets and either make donations or buy handicrafts.  In response to my string of interview questions such as: “were you asked in advance if you wanted or needed volunteers?; show me the projects they have completed for you; and do you want more volunteers to come again?” it occurred to me that they often did not even know what the word “volunteer” meant.  Understanding this, recorded responses included:

  • “No. We were not asked before they came.” (echoing the experience of indigenous people for centuries, having no choice in the matter)
  • “They read to the children or watered the garden or built this shelter that has now fallen down” (reminiscent of decades of development projects that did not assess community need, complement the environment or have lasting benefits)
  • “Yes, we want them to come again…but because they bring money!” (a practical reaction to what seems to be the only tangible gain resulting from the visits from white people)

These responses helped to shed light on a major aspect of volunteer-recipient intercultural (mis)understandings: local people may not know why students are there at all!  Clearly volunteers are not able to “Help” when their community partners do not understand that they are trying to impart skills or create “convivial” environments in the first place.

A volunteer watering a garden, example of student service near an orphanage.

Further interviews underscored the attitudes and emotions of some of the local people on project sites and in South African townships.

  • “They are here to help us? I thought they were here to learn.”
  • “They can come if they want to, but when they leave, things are the same.”
  • “We have been given many things, but they never show us how to get things for ourselves.”
  • “It’s important for people to learn from us while they are here. And it is important for us to learn from them.  We want to!  But they have to listen to us first.”

We are reminded that to many of these local people, a “volunteer” is just an inexperienced young white person who needs to be told what to do, and likely expects to be fed lunch. It is worthwhile to recall  that many languages do not have a word that translates into “volunteer,” as the practice of international service-learning and volunteering is a luxury “derived from a class and a culture with enough surplus time to both donate its labor, and to travel in order to do so” (Wearing, 2001).

Study abroad programs have shifted dramatically in the last few decades away from Europe, (IIE, 2011) making it increasingly likely that student trips, regardless of length, will take place in countries that have the greatest health, development, education, and social challenges. Good intentions that result in little positive impact and that may in fact be doing harm, require a fundamental change in program design. Ultimately, as Westerners making careers from planning, assessing, and writing about student service activities, we share the responsibility to seek solutions to this ethical and programmatic flaw, and to ensure that these voices, as recipients of volunteer tourism and service learning are heard. In 2014, rather than acting as if we don’t have enough data, personal accounts, and historical resources to determine the affect of service on communities, we need to acknowledge that we know enough to do better.

The gulf created by this lack of mutuality of purpose, or even understanding that students are there to help, points directly to the issue of community benefit.  Clearly these communities are not experiencing “development” or “uplift-ment” or “empowerment” when they are not 1) part of the decision-making regarding hosting students, 2) apprised of the goal of the “project” nor 3) included in the long-term discussion regarding the goals and intentions of the volunteer labor.  Development projects fail because local people do not have “buy-in” on the goals and maintenance of systems.   People are further marginalized when they are told what to do or “corrected” in their work by a young white person with no context or historical knowledge of the environment they are in.


The International Service-Learning Summit in October 2013 opened with a talk made by Bud Hall encouraging the overthrow of the dominant Western educational paradigm in favor of indigenous knowledge and perspective. Those of us engaged in service learning and international programs often tend to see the world from the ‘bottom up’ and want to find ways to encourage students to appreciate and to even be transformed by contact with individuals and communities outside of the mainstream. We see this as part of a liberal education.  Unfortunately, a challenge remains inherent in both traditional tourism in practice, and mimicked in the international education field, where creating sociopolitical solidarity or affecting a change in the status quo have never been a conceptual goal (Kiely, 2010)  and may affirm an unconscious (cultural) agreement to accept the inevitability of things the way they are (McCannell, 1989).

Without enough preparation and acknowledgement of privilege, these forms of service learning fall short of the service learning goal of participatory engagement or community empowerment. In fact, comparisons can be made to outdated modes of both tourism and development that draw benefits (pleasure and self-satisfaction) from destinations while giving little back. (Nelson, 2010: 15)  Other critics point out that some of the most popular volunteer target destinations are not necessarily those countries or communities in need of the most aid, but rather ones that contain multiple draws such as exotic wildlife, tropical beaches, and cosmopolitan cities that conveniently co-exist with some level of poverty (Tomazos and Butler, 2008, Rogerson, 2010).  I speak from personal experience at the awkwardness of trying to respond to such questions from community members, as to why Americans don’t remain home to help their own people.

The path to a village, the typical rural environment in South Africa

Meaningful change as Hall may envision will need to be spearheaded by organizers, in pre-, during-, and post-travel interventions, as students are often inadvertently contributing to the perpetration of uneven power or gender relationships already in place, especially in post-apartheid South Africa. Responding to feedback and developing deeper community partnerships that uplift community members to the status of instructors would be a first step towards this vision.

Posting research findings within this international service learning field on a critically grounded website provides an opportunity to begin to address the concern that “outcomes for the communities that host these groups are relatively unknown as most research has neglected these voices” (Crabtree, 2013). A major challenge for ISL as a new discipline is to locate and compare itself to the field of international development, for which decades of critical literature is available, even as it is unlikely that the “silos” of university life will allow for cross-analysis of the results of similar efforts. My work was completed in Geography, for example, and I suggest that it would be prudent to look outside of the “service learning” discourse to the fields of anthropology, political ecology, development ethics, Marxism, globalization, feminism, tourism, and neo-liberal economics for additional theoretical and historical analysis, as I did in my work. I also sense that many practitioners know that there is an ethical problem within ISL, yet are not sure how to tackle it within the demands of curriculum development and responsibilities to students, yet some have published assessments of their own programs.  More and more academics and professionals have made it the focus of their research (Jessica ArendsSarah Jane DelcambreNora ReynoldsCynthia Toms) in a variety of other fields, providing the opportunity to aggregate findings.

I believe that we all want to gain a broader perspective on the impacts that repeated outside interventions have on those in the global south, especially marginalized populations and children. We know inherently that our destination communities may lack social agency and are not empowered to resist the forces of missionaries, globalization, tourism – and now “alternative tourism” and international service learning –  and that they deserve our support. Surely we want to do better than follow in the footsteps of earlier Western cultural impositions. We must therefore find ways to expand the research into community impacts and use our positions to give voice  – and more empowerment – to the voiceless.


Crabtree, R. D. (2013). The intended and unintended consequences of international service learning. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 17 (2), 43-66.

Delcambre, Sarah J., (2012)”Community Perspectives- How Study Abroad with Service Learning Impacts the Locals” Capstone Collection. SIT Graduate Institute, Paper 2543.

Kennedy and Dornan (2009) An Overview: Tourism Non-governmental Organizations and Poverty Reduction in Developing Countries. Asia Pacific Journal of Tourism Research, 14 (2183-200.

Kiely, R. (2010) What international service learning research can learn from research on international learning. In R.G. Bringle, J.A. Hatcher, S.G. Jones (Eds.), International service learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research. Sterling, VA: Stylus

MCannell, D. (1989) The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. Shocken Books, New York (Revised Edition). *see first publication of Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of social space in Tourist Settings. American Journal of Sociology, 79(3) 589-603.

Nelson, E. (2010) A Community Perspective on Volunteer Tourism and Development in South Africa.  Unpublished Masters thesis, Miami University.

Nelson, E. and Klak, T. (2012) Equity in International Experiential Learning: Assessing Benefits to Students and Host Communities. PRISM: A Journal of Regional Engagement, Vol 1, (2). 106-128.

Rogerson, C. ( 2010) Youth Tourism in Africa: Evidence from South Africa. Tourism Analysis

Tomazos and Butler (2008) Tourism, serious leisure, altruism, or self-enhancement?Working Papers of the CAUTHE Conference:; accessed 4/27/09

Wearing, S. (2001) Volunteer Tourism: Experiences that make a difference. CABI: Wallingford.


Erika Nelson was an AFS exchange student to South Africa, studied abroad in Kenya and Dominica, and led a volunteer service program to Ghana in the summer of 2001.  She has over 15 years experience in international exchange program management and has facilitated 100s of intercultural workshops and trainings. She lived in South Africa from 2001-2005 working as a Volunteer Development Manager, supporting host families and working with volunteers. She later became the site director at Tlholego Eco-Village, a sustainable housing and Permaculture education center outside of Rustenburg.  She completed her Master’s degree in Geography with her study of community impacts of international service learning, and teaches Anthropology at Miami University in Ohio. She holds a BA in Anthropology and African Studies from Indiana University.

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