Although 50 years have passed since the founding of the Peace Corps and international service is currently growing worldwide, little rigorous research has been conducted on its impacts. The Center for Social Development (CSD) is changing that, leading research on international service and informing policy. The reach of CSD’s international service research is global, with research projects in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. CSD’s research team on international service includes Amanda Moore McBride, Associate Professor at the Brown School and Research Director of CSD, Margaret Sherraden, Research Professor at CSD, Benjamin Lough, Post-Doctoral Research Associate at CSD, and Kathleen O’Hara, a doctoral student at Columbia University.
Developing new tools for more rigorous research
Until recently, no standardized survey existed to measure the full range of possible volunteer outcomes and allow for comparison across service programs and contexts. In 2009, CSD developed just such a tool—the International Volunteering Impacts Survey (IVIS). A significant advantage of the IVIS is the ability to administer the survey longitudinally using a quasi-experimental design. This design is a standard in social science research as it allows claims of impacts. The IVIS, which can be administered across different international service programs and contexts, will allow researchers to build a comparative evidence base. CSD has already used the survey in an impact study in Latin America, and CSD research partner, VOSESA, plans to use the tool for an upcoming impact study.
“We have been in numerous symposia and practitioner-based meetings where the field is asking for assessment tools. We hope our instruments are a contribution, said Lough.
Establishing a foundation for impact research in the field
To date, most research on international service has focused solely on the volunteers themselves. While impacts on volunteers are important, CSD’s current research seeks to broaden the scope of research to focus not only on volunteers but also on the host communities and organizations that they serve.
CSD’s landmark study on international service, funded by the Ford Foundation, demonstrates a link between impacts on volunteers and impacts on host countries in Latin America. The study, which assesses how international volunteers perceive themselves to have changed as a result of their volunteer service, demonstrates that volunteers perceive an increase in most areas. The study’s findings on relationships between volunteers and people in the host countries—known as “social capital”—shed light on the potential long-term impacts of international volunteering on host countries. The study finds that volunteers maintain connections with people in the host countries in multiple ways: sending money back to the countries, lobbying for policy changes, and linking people and organizations to resources, to name a few. [Read the report]
A longitudinal follow-up study with the volunteers and a matched comparison group of volunteers is planned for 2011 to examine these behaviors and potential impacts over time.
Another aspect of the project focuses on the contributions of short-term international volunteers to the capacity of the host organizations. Findings suggest that international volunteers may increase organizational capacity by supplying “extra hands,” providing technical and professional skills, contributing tangible resources, and enhancing intercultural understanding. Volunteers may also pose a challenge to organizations because they absorb staff time and resources. Staff members from the host organizations identify individual and institutional variables that may affect the quality of these outcomes, including volunteers’ language capacity and the intensity of the service placement.
Expanding the scope of impact research
The design, methods, and instruments of the impact project are now being applied by VOSESA and the University of Johannesburg to conduct field research on impacts of international service in Africa. Program partners include two programs from Germany, where volunteers serve in sub-Saharan Africa. The volunteer surveys are underway. Field research will be conducted in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, and Tanzania. Benjamin Lough is leading analysis of the volunteer surveys. These data will also be compared to those collected in the impact study in Latin America.
CSD is also providing research support to Caroline Brassard of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore. Brassard’s study of international service in Asia is funded by the International FORUM on Development Service with additional support from the Singapore International Foundation, and CSD’s Margaret Sherraden and Ben Lough have consulted on the project. A report, based on interviews, focus groups, and surveys of sending and hosting organizations, was presented at FORUM’s October, 2010 conference in Singapore.
Supported by a grant from the Washington University-Brookings Institution Academic Venture Fund, CSD and the Brookings Institution are consulting on the research design and implementation of the first-ever experimental study on the community-level impacts of international service. The study is led by Dr. Ed O’Neil of Tufts Medical School and founder of Omni Med, an international service organization. Omni Med works in collaboration with the Peace Corps in Uganda to train local village health workers to provide community health education and services. This study will focus specifically on health-related impacts of international service in Uganda. Benjamin Lough just recently completed supporting field work with data collection to be later this year.
“It’s an exciting moment in research on international service,” said Sherraden of the increasing scope of research. “Five or ten years from now, we will have so much more evidence of impacts and how to structure programs more effectively. The implications for policy are huge.”
Informing policy and practice
In 2010, McBride and her co-authors, Margaret Sherraden and Benjamin Lough, have presented the research on the impact of international volunteer service at the International Volunteer Service Research and Policy Forum in Washington, DC, the International Society for Third-Sector Research Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, and the Future of International Service symposium at the University of Michigan. A presentation is also planned at the U.S. Summit for Global Citizen Diplomacy on November 16 on evaluating and measuring the impact of international volunteering and it’s relation to citizen diplomacy.
CSD’s research in international service has already had direct influence on policy. It has informed the 2009 Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act and the proposed 2010 Sargent Shriver International Service Act. The Serve America Act expands service opportunities for Americans of all ages, and includes provisions to increase opportunities for populations that are usually underrepresented, including disadvantaged youth, youth with disabilities, and American Indians, through global service fellowships. The Sargent Shriver Act would increase opportunities for Americans to volunteer in other countries by expanding the Peace Corps, supporting the nonprofit sector’s leadership in international service, and establishing several new initiatives focused on particular service needs, including global health. The CSD team led a working group of researchers and academics to develop the research and accountability strategies for this legislation.