“Since the founding of the Peace Corps 50 years ago, international service programs have grown dramatically across the public, private and nonprofit sectors,” says Amanda Moore McBride, PhD, assistant professor at the Brown School and expert on civic service as research director at the school’s Center for Social Development (CSD).
“The Peace Corps remains the United States’ flagship program that solidified the connection between international service, community development and peace.”
To date, most research on the field of international service has focused solely on the volunteers themselves. While impacts on volunteers are important, CSD researches not only the impacts on volunteers but also the impacts on the host communities and organizations that they serve.
“The impact of the experience is not just for the volunteers, but most importantly, for the host countries as well,” McBride says. “We hope our research will help structure service programs more effectively.”
In their most recent study, McBride and colleagues, Benjamin Lough, PhD, postdoctoral research associate, and Margaret Sherraden, PhD, CSD research professor, looked at the impact of international service on the development of volunteers’ international contacts and how those contacts, in turn, are used to further host community development around the world.
Results suggest that the community’s need and desire for the volunteers, paired with more weeks of service by the volunteers, leads to stronger relationships with community members, program staff and fellow volunteers, all met during the international service experience.
“Strong connections can be leveraged by international service volunteers to provide resources to their host communities after the term of volunteer service is over,” she says. Proficiency in the host-country language predicts whether those contacts are leveraged in the future for development or policy-change purposes.
“What surprised us about these results is that we thought community immersion — such as living with a host family — would make a difference in forging connections and would lead to an increased use of these connections,” McBride says.
“We also thought that advanced training for international service volunteers would make a difference in creating lasting connections, but that did not bear out. Our results do not mean these are unimportant, just that the characteristics of the volunteer and host community may matter most.”
McBride and CSD also look at host communities through interviews and focus groups. The host communities are then compared with other communities that did not interact with international volunteers. This qualitative evidence supports the volunteer survey findings.
McBride recently discussed her research findings at the National Symposium on the Future of International Service, the first event in a year-long celebration honoring of the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps. The conference was held at the University of Michigan.
CSD’s research on international service already has 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 national working group of academics, researchers and practitioners to develop the research and accountability strategies for this legislation.
For more information about this and other international service research at the CSD, visit: Innovations on Forefront of Center for Social Development’s Research on International Volunteer Service as Peace Corps Marks 50th Anniversary .