Posted: February 16, 2016
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It’s a really great to have the desire to help those less fortunate and want to make a difference. However, the good intentions can often get lost as this desire starts to cloud our ability to listen. This is why there are so many stories of first world do-gooders going into developing countries and causing more problems than good in the local communities. The core problem in these cases sits with the fact that they haven’t understood the needs of the community and have gone into a situation armed with a problem they are determined to fix, instead of asking what the community really needs from them.
Addressing this problem is what makes service learning such an effective medium. A service learning project is all about learning what is valuable to others. Sure there is value in donating time, money and resources to those “in need” but the most valuable thing is taking the time to understand the community’s past and present. Instead of asking “what is this place missing that I have in my home country? We should rather be listening to what is valuable to them and what they feel is missing.
This is where the first stage of Service Learning (investigation) becomes really important. Before arriving in another country, we need to research the struggles that the people there are facing. Problems can range from a society that values educating boys over girls, racism between neighbouring ethnicities or a lack of knowledge on basic sanitation, prenatal care and nutrition. By understanding what a community is facing, we can better align our resources and identify with their struggles on a much deeper and personal level. Connecting on this level can only have positive benefits for any service learning project. It cultivates meaningful cultural exchange that will lead to greater success as we start addressing real problems and not ones idealised from a western perspective.
Once we understand this concept of “giving what the receiver wants instead of what I hope they want”, we can start looking at how this applies to our everyday lives. We are all guilty of buying people in our lives presents that they don’t want. This is because when we rarely to stop to think about what the other person might need from us from their perspective. Instead, we tend to choose gifts based on what we like and sprinkled with what we think they want.
But what about “it’s the thought that counts?” Yes, it does but shifting our mindsets to think a little more deeply about the gifts we give needs to happen. Giving a gift that is meaningful to the other person and recognising what will make that person happy will carry a lot more value than just another ugly sweater sitting at the bottom of the closet that is never going to worn.
By approaching our service learning projects and everyday lives with this mentality, we will truly be able to start making a difference and facilitating meaningful change. When we step back and start to view problems through another person’s perspective, we start to see how our want for something can be much greater than theirs. This is why it’s important to help students see where their specific expertise is needed to better understand how they are valuable to the community. Adopting this mindset will help us all to make less of an imperial mark and rather take a softer approach that includes the community and makes a lasting impact.
GVI is a multi-award winning Service Learning organisation. Find out more about our international programs and see how students from around the world are making a difference.