The Hole in our Helping – Part 1

June 25, 2012

“So, how do our member NGOs stand to benefit from your students’ involvement?”

The first of a three-part contribution to the faith, values, and service-learning series by Richard Slimbach:

Several weeks ago I was in Addis Ababa, sitting with the director of an organization in Ethiopia that serves as an “umbrella” for over 300 national and international NGOs. The agency’s four-story office complex was elegant by any standards, North or South. As we sipped the customary macchiato, I began to explain the purpose of my visit. My university, Azusa Pacific University, in partnership with respected higher education institutions in Addis, was preparing to launch a new master’s degree program focused on urban poor leadership development. Because the program featured five internships in different development areas (primary health, education, land rights advocacy, outreach to marginalized groups, and job development), we needed his help in identifying the most effective organizations as potential placement sites.

The director attentively listened as I described how community-based learning powerfully ‘grounds’ academic study in the lived experience of marginalized groups, enabling students to put a human face to social theory and theology. I carried on for two or three minutes, and wanted to pontificate further, but decided to pause to give him space to respond. After taking a sip on his macchiato, he set the cup down, leaned forward, and simply asked:

So, how do our member NGOs stand to benefit from your students’ involvement?

There was no reproof in the question. Having supervisory responsibility over hundreds of Ethiopian organizations, the director understandably needed to collect as much information as possible before deciding whether or not to lend his support. For him the question was innocent enough. But for me it exposed what is often the “elephant in the room” in discussions of global service learning: the community perspective. Grassroots organizations have questions they would love to ask western program sponsors but seldom do. Questions like: Will the internship placements benefit only the students? Will the time and effort expended by organizations to host students trans­late into greater mission effectiveness? Could the well-intentioned service offered by volunteers unwittingly have disabling effects?

I did manage to piece together a response to the director’s question, although I knew it painted an idealized picture. Foreign volunteers, I said, bring fresh energy and empathic concern. They also offer contrasting perspectives and certain technical skills. Some are even able to leverage financial resources and social networks to strengthen organizational capacity.

My host nodded approvingly. He then reached across his desk, shook my hand, and announced, “We would be happy to facilitate service placements for you.” With that our conversation ended. But like a pebble in a shoe, I could not shake his central query for the balance of my stay.

Global service learning (GSL), as a component of education abroad, has yet to offer a compelling model for assessing community benefit. We generally assume that groups of adolescents and young adults, conducting short-term service projects among disadvantaged groups, inevitably “give back” to host communities in ways that are reciprocal and sustainable, with few unintended consequences. A number of community perception studies do exist that suggest positive impacts on host organizations and communities (Ferrari & Worrall, 2000; Birdsall, 2005; Stoecker & Tryon, 2009; Irie, et al., 2010; McBride, Lough & Sherraden, 2010). Yet, I am not aware of a single study that carefully documents specific and sustainable changes in the quality of life of community beneficiaries as a result of foreign volunteerism. The overwhelming emphasis of research on service learning has focused on how community service impacts the volunteers; community outcomes are left almost entirely unexamined. Randy Stoeker (2009) sums up the current imbalance:

There has been growing dissatisfaction among many people both inside and outside the service learning movement since the 1990s, particularly when it comes to the issue of whether service learning truly serves communities. In the worst cases, analysts saw poor communities exploited as free sources of student education. Others worried that the “charity” model of service learning reinforced negative stereotypes and students’ perceptions of poor communities as helpless. While lip service is paid to the importance of community outcomes, there are only a handful of studies that look at community impact… The neglect of community impact is a result of the biased focus on serving and changing students, which creates a self-perpetuating cycle. (p. 3-4)

What explains the overwhelming bias within global service learning on student growth rather than community development? To help answer this question, let me suggest six realities that appear to be firmly entrenched in human personality and social structure. Whether the net effect of these realities is to pose obstacles to or opportunities for the desired re-balancing is for you to decide. What is important is that we understand how each factor shapes volunteer service in order to soberly assess whether community impact assessment is practically possible, and under what conditions.

1.     Moral instinct

Something within human nature compels privileged persons to help the less fortunate. When good people with discretionary time and money observe the suffering of others, and realize they have the capacity to meet real needs, they naturally look for the most direct and immediate way to intervene. “Helping” is enjoined upon the faithful of virtually all faith traditions. Within Christianity, voluntary service is rooted in the example of Jesus and biblical precept. Jesus declared, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk 10:42-5). In the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus asks the question of moral obligation this way: Who is my neighbor? Am I to regard the Haitian or Afghan mother, distant from me geographically, socially, racially, economically and emotionally, as my neighbor? Over the centuries, the response of the world’s theological traditions has been fairly unanimous: Those who lack the basic necessities of life, regardless of their geographic location, are at least “neighbors” in the human “family,” possibly “brothers” and “sisters” and, in some mysterious way, the very face of God. It was Jesus who declared, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matt. 25:40).

Religious or spiritual commitment, though a potent motivator for service, is not always the most important reason for using time, talent or treasure to alleviate the suffering of others. Compassionate service is, for many, a way of finding transcendence in a world of metaphysical uncertainty. Deeds of service affirm a basic goodness and common fate among human beings, despite geographic distance and cultural difference. Helping others provides us a glimpse of the sacred (Wuthnow, 1995). We see a barefoot girl and straightway buy her a pair of shoes. A homeless man asks for fifty cents and we reach into our pockets for change. We hear of neglected children or destitute aged persons abroad and we enlist to be caregivers. Voluntary service becomes not just an act of kindness or compassion, but an act of moral duty and social justice that addresses immediate, correctable needs in a cruelly divided world.

Part 2: Service versus Charity, Institutional Self-Interest, and Individualist Ethos  


Richard Slimbach is Professor of Global Studies, Sociology, and TESOL at Azusa Pacific University. Since 1991, his professional energies have been dedicated to creating, teaching in, and managing academic programs aimed at preparing students to learn in socio-cultural settings radically different from their own. Slimbach supervises the Global Learning Term — a self-directed, full-immersion study and service abroad program that has enabled global studies students to conduct small-scale community research and academic service-learning projects in over 50 non-western countries. He recently completed Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning.

If you appreciate these reflective questions and this series on faith, values, and service-learning, please share it, post comments or thoughts, and sign-up to receive the upcoming posts by following Building a Better World on Twitter or providing your email address in the box on the right.


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McBride, A.M., Lough, B. & Sherraden, M.S. (2010, May 25). Perceived impacts of international service on volunteers: Interim results from a quasi-experimental study. Global Economy and Development at Brookings.

Stearns, R. (2009). The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World. World Vision.

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Tonkin, H. (2010). “A Research Agenda for International Service-learning.” In International Service Learning: Conceptual Frameworks and Research (IUPUI Series on Service Learning Research). Stylus Publications.

Twenge, J. (2007). Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–and More Miserable Than Ever Before. Free Press.

Wuthnow, R. (1995). Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference. Oxford University Press.

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