Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, Vol 6, No 1 (2018)

International Service Learning: Decolonizing Possibilities?

Harry Smaller, Michael O’Sullivan


International Service Learning (ISL) programs are now ubiquitous, and the concept seems immutable: well-meaning young people from the North visiting "host" communities in the South in order to provide "service" and "to learn."  The adulatory literature is replete with the purported benefits of these programs, both to those participating from the North, and to the communities in the South. By comparison, more critical follow-up of participants from the North suggest otherwise – that they serve mainly to reinforce values of charity for the "other" and do little to aid in understanding the reasons for the unequal relations of "underdevelopment."  Similarly, a number of more recent studies have raised questions about the impact of these programs on communities in the South, and the extent to which they may serve to (re)instill neo-colonial economic and/or cultural relations.

This paper presents and discusses findings from a multi-year study in a number of rural communities in Nicaragua which have hosted ISL programs, undertaken with the express purpose of exploring the modes and effects of the interactions between the visitors and the community residents. Through field observation, interviews and focus groups, a complex picture emerges of community engagement with, and reaction to, these Northern visitors, and the impact they effect on their Southern hosts. Of particular interest, we examine the possibilities these programs may have for interrupting traditional knowledge-power relations and understandings on both sides.


international service learning; Nicaragua; decolonizing; development; learn; service; knowledge-power; impact

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