Service Learning: A Microcosm of International Development (Part II)

    Posted: February 28, 2017

    Service-learning in many ways takes principles associated with international development and adds a university component, to create a learning environment for students while simultaneously contributing to one of many current global issues (gender equality, environmental sustainability, poverty, racism, and so on). As a result, students experience a purposeful exposure to global issues in a way that seeks to deepen their engagement with those issues, as well as provide them with a valuable experiential currency for their future lives.

    Part II: Comparing Underlying Components of International Development and Service Learning

    International development seeks to implement long-term strategies and problem-solving for global issues in countries that lack resources to do so independently. The often-used term ‘sustainable development’ refers to on-going projects that incorporate the local community’s voice, and continue after a development organization has left in such a way that requires no further (or very little) international involvement or support.

    Community development, as defined by the International Association for Community Development (IACD) is, “a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes participative democracy, sustainable development, rights, economic opportunity, equality and social justice, through the organization, education and empowerment of people within their communities, whether these be of locality, identity or interest, in urban and rural settings.”

    We can dissect these components of healthy community development in order to better understand the community development aspects of both international development and service-learning.

          Further Reading: Service Learning: A Microcosm of International Development (Part I)


    Inclusive and equitable representation

    The economic inequality that has resulted from rapid globalization continues to create class divides that make basic access to education, healthcare, or housing much more difficult for many. In order to help communities who struggle to cross these economic and social divides, development actors must incorporate community participation in their projects. Participation empowers community members to influence and manage their own development, and also minimizes any potential dependence on development actors (we’ll get more into the importance and process of empowering communities/students in a later section).

    The principle of inclusivity incorporates the understanding that the causes of problems do not generally lie locally, but that the relevant action taken to address them can, and should, be taken locally. As such, the community’s interests are of central concern when developing and implementing international development projects. Service-learning adds an additional layer to this formula by including student interests within the program design, and seeks to account for student interests while also enabling students to account for community interests (and vice versa). This in many ways resembles a triangle of student, university, and community. Each actor accounts for the other in as close to an equitable partnership as possible.  

          Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part II: Creating the Classroom Climate

    Appropriateness and sustainability

    The kind of participation development actors have with a community-development project depends on certain cultural specifics and community directives. Development actors should seek to integrate this cultural sensitivity into their project work as much as possible within realistic parameters (i.e. assuming it adheres to issues of human dignity and empowerment). This transfers to service-learning in the way students interact with and involve community members in their learning and service work. There is much potential for a clash of culture or perspective or understanding, which makes guidance from a qualified facilitator as well as critical reflection of the experience all the more necessary.

    The concept of appropriateness is also concerned with ensuring that a development project is of the correct scale and technical level, and is suitable for its beneficiaries. For service-learning, this is balancing projects that are relevant both for the community needs (needs-based) and for student learning (previously articulated learning goals).

    A sustainable approach to development, as previously touched on, is one that considers economic, social, cultural, and environmental factors when planning and implementing community projects. A sustainable project uses no more natural resources than a community can easily provide, and is implemented using a time-frame that provides plenty of space for the community voice to guide it. Support is key for sustainability, on a financial, governmental, and personal level.

          Further Reading: Exploring the Role of the Facilitator Part III: Relational Learning 


    Human empowerment and capacity-building

    International development programs use the theme of human empowerment and dignity as central to projects. This means that community recipients of development projects can and must be active players in programs that seek to better their lives. Of course to begin with, the most vulnerable will need free technical assistance, community organizing, and educational support, in order to raise the playing field to a truly equitable level. As this begins to happen though, it is also equally important to incorporate capacity-building and empowerment into the projects, to ensure community members’ long-term success.

    In both international development and student development, phrases like capacity-building frequently arise. Capacity-building as a practice seeks to empower a group or an individual to take ownership of their own progress and ideas, and to discover ways of managing their success independently. This is true for human empowerment in both community development and student learning.

    Facilitators of both service-learning and international development work to increase the abilities of recipients (of development projects and of student learning) to continue their future development independently, without external support. This concept ties in with sustainability in many ways, as it is an individual’s ability to sustain their own development.

    A critical component to capacity-building is also incorporating a sense of social justice into development projects. The goal of this approach is to empower participants that lack full access to equal rights, and to strengthen the capacity of the institution or government that is in charge of fulfilling those rights.

        Further Reading: The Challenges of Capacity Building in Service Learning  




    Looking ahead

    For the success of both service-learning and international development, these community development components are essential. Moving forward, perhaps practitioners and educators involved with service-learning could take the concepts outlined by international development and apply them to their own work or “service” to their students. It is, of course, still a mutually-beneficial triangle: the students empower the professors who empower the community who empowers the students (and vice versa).

    Perhaps one way of creating a clearer course for student learning objectives or learning outcomes would then be to acknowledge and identify some root issues with higher education institutions as a whole, which includes the state of education as it currently exists in America (e.g. student loans, the curriculum structure of four-year institutions, etc). Once those developmental challenges are identified, perhaps then we as a nation can move forward into ways of addressing them, through targeted, collective goals and more competent, innovative approaches.

    Think a service learning course might be a good fit for you? GVI is a multi-award winning International Service Learning organization. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.