Servants or saviors? Exploring the impact of international volunteerism on host communities and volunteers.


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International volunteer service (IVS) has rapidly expanded in the last decade among its volunteer participants and sponsoring agencies. Scholars have diverse opinions on the efficacy and ethics of IVS. Proponents suggest that IVS brings a humanity to development that might otherwise be focused on merely economic growth. Critics, however, are concerned that IVS originating in the Global North and directed toward the Global South potentially reifies power differentials previously established through colonialism. Little research has explored the impact IVS is having on its stakeholders, namely, host communities who receive volunteers and international volunteers themselves. Distinct in focus, the qualitative and quantitative studies in this dissertation provide unique insight into the impact IVS has on its stakeholders and the intercultural relationship between volunteers and host community members. A phenomenological approach was used to explore Kenyans’ experiences of international volunteers’ behaviors and attitudes in their communities. While positive themes of skill transfer and honoring cultural practices emerged, so did negative themes that suggested international volunteers had demeaning perceptions of Kenyans, controlled collaborative projects, gave Kenyans cursory roles to play, and departed hastily without empowering Kenyans, which led to project failure. Recommendations for strengthening IVS practices were described. The quantitative study explored the impact IVS has on volunteers (n=490). In the context of a worldwide refugee crisis, IVS organizations responded by sending volunteers to serve the critical needs of refugees. This study explored the extent to which IVS changed volunteers’ perceptions of the refugees they served. Using paired samples t-tests, findings revealed a statistically significant mean difference in international volunteers’ perceptions of refugees before and after service. Applying Mezirow’s theory of transformative learning as a frame, the study sought to understand the change in perceptions that occurred in study participants. Finally, a qualitative study explored Kenyans’ understandings of humility and how the virtue relates to IVS practices. Findings suggested humility is an attitude of appreciation and equality in relation to others, while humility in practice is a posture of listening and learning from others and not having a “know it all” stance. Recommendations for future research were identified.



International volunteer. Host community. Impact. Humility. Perception.