Ethical Service-Learning: Are you practicing it?

Last week, I attended an interesting session at the NAFSA Region IV conference in Des Moines, Iowa, on the subject of ethical service-learning abroad. Service-learning is such a trend at the moment. We have inculcated the current generation of students with knowledge about their privilege and about their responsibility to give back or serve, in some capacity. And they are responding.

But, is all volunteer work beneficial? If students give of their time, isn’t it all helpful?  Isn’t some volunteer work better than none at all?

Actually, the presenters at this session–Heilwig Jones of Kaya Responsible Travel and Jason Kinnear of the Office of Service-Learning at the University of Missouri–would answer “no” to those questions. There are better and worse ways to volunteer abroad, according to their presentation on “Short-term Service-Learning Group Programs: Ethical Considerations for Program Planning.”

Here are some of the questions they identify to ensure ethical service-learning projects:

Community Involvement and Engagement

  • Is the proposed work addressing a need identified by the community?
  • Is there existing work addressing the issue?
  • Will the work be done under the leadership, supervision and guidance of locals?
  • Is there a local person who can relied upon to be honest in identifying potential negative impact?
  • Is there local support in place to guide students with regards to cultural norms, expectations and practices?
  • Are there local people who have experience dealing with foreigners?
    • Share your motivations and considerations openly with these local experts as you look to set up a program.


  • What are the outcomes of the project after it is completed?
  • Does the work continue when you leave?
  • Is there a capacity-building element?
  • Can the work initiated by your group be built upon by locals, by you or by others going forward?
  • Do local resources exist to maintain outcomes?

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