The type of study abroad program that institutions and providers plan often reveals hidden perceptions of the destinations and cultures they intend to visit, says Julie Ficarra, an education abroad advisor at the University of South Florida. Ficarra was joined by Elaine Acacio, resident director of a Council for International Educational Exchange (CIEE) program in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and Jeane d’Arc Gomis, director of International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP) Africa and Middle East Programs, to present a session at NAFSA's annual conference titled “First Do No Harm: Exploring the Impact of Short-Term Study Abroad Programs on Host Communities.”

Ficarra explained that programs to Europe often focus on art, history, and politics while the majority of programs to the developing world often center on service learning. This differentiation may lead students to develop negative or false notions about the host culture and society while at the same time doing more harm than good for the community. Ficarra mentioned slum tourists and afternoon visits to orphanages as examples of exchange that have few long-term benefits for either party.

The key to successful long-term partnerships between programs and host communities lies in transition from transactional to transformative partnerships. When programs shift from one-way delivery of goods or services to mutually beneficial exchanges of language, culture, and ideas, the positive impacts both short- and long-term will begin to outweigh any negative consequences that come from study abroad interaction.

Gomis presented a case study involving a Senegalese village that played host to U.S. college students for two days. The students originally planned to stay for six days but elected to leave early. When they were interviewed a year later, the villagers reported many benefits from the interaction with the students, such as healthier diets and improved hygiene, but the students’ decision to leave early offended the villagers, caused significant financial loss for many host families, and resulted in the cancellation of several traditional activities.

Acacio added that programs must have a clear focus for the future, and program providers must be keenly aware of the difference between sustainability and dependence. Acacio says that all partnerships would ideally conclude when the host community is able to continue the work of the partnership on its own.

How does your institution or organization work to establish long-term partnerships with host communities?