(Presented by Dr Mark Anthony D. Abenir, Associate Professor, Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University; Dr Liu Hong, Fudan University; Dr Martina Jordaan, Head: Community Based Research & Postgraduate Studies, University of Pretoria; and Mr John Kalenzi, African Evangelistic Enterprise Rwanda at the International USR Summit 2022)
Empowerment of local populations is the key to success for community development projects in both regional and global settings, said academia and practitioners in the International USR Summit 2022. Student service-learning involving collaboration across borders in turn enhances the building of global citizenship, ultimately helping to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The International USR Summit 2022, co-organised by the University Social Responsibility Network (USRN) and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) was held virtually from 16 to 18 November 2022. A plenary panel on “Elevating Sustainable Development through Regional and Global Collaboration” has in-depth discussion on various community development projects with different levels of collaboration.
Dr Liu Hong, Associate Professor in the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Fudan University in China shared his experience as a practitioner of a regional collaborative project. The Ministry of Civil Affairs launched a project called “Hand-in-Hand” in 2017 to promote collaboration between China’s eastern and western regions for the alleviation of poverty. It was an initiative from the central government level but with funding from the local level. Dr Hong’s team focused on the development of child welfare in a mountainous, ethnically diverse and poor county.
Dr Hong recalled that at the beginning his team considered running a typical intervention, to provide education and training to local professionals such as teachers and other service providers, and give advice to local government in consultation and training sessions for policy change. However, what he envisioned was different from reality.
“We wanted to transfer knowledge, skills and knowhow to these places. We took them totally as receivers. But in fact this linear model never happened. What we actually did was that we developed a 3-way relationship,” said Dr Hong.
The team worked with a volunteer association with local leaders, and helped them establish and register a non-profit organisation with full-time workers. With professional supervision from Dr Hong’s team, the organisation started to attract funding and ran programmes for children and people with physical and mental disabilities independently.
He learnt that creating a structure to enhance local conversations, particularly between the government and local organisations, was very crucial. “We always need to be very aware of power dynamics. In practice, empowerment is to always put the local organisation at the forefront of discussion so that they have a say in policy making or decision making processes,” said Dr Hong.
Mr John Kalenzi, Executive Director of African Evangelistic Enterprise Rwanda, shared a similar view of local community empowerment.
He highlighted that in Rwanda where a majority of people live in poverty and are dependent on agriculture, sustainable development refers to enduring development with prioritisation of equality and equity for the most marginalised and disadvantaged people, and changes of the structural causes of inequality for individuals.
He used the project “Solar power to village homes” that he collaborated with PolyU a few years ago as a case study. PolyU experts and students travelled to Rwanda to work with the local communities, coach Rwandese youth solar technology, and train local people to install solar panels to their homes. “The experts came and trained our staff, our communities and our associates. It also provided a platform for culture exchange and understanding,” said Mr Kalenzi.
The opportunities for students from Hong Kong and Rwanda to exchange with each other was also enlightening. He remembered, “Our students got the chance to know what was happening in Hong Kong, and students from Hong Kong got the chance to see what was happening in Rwanda and know how our people lived.”
Most importantly, the project has transformed the lives of Rwandan people. “The impact is huge. Children can do their homework after school, which they couldn’t do before. Business can work after sunset. People can stay home at night happily – they can catch their phones, they can listen to news and get connected to the entire world,” said Mr Kalenzi.
Indeed, service-learning through regional and global collaboration can enhance the building of global citizenship among students, which in turn help achieve United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Dr Martina Jordaan, Head of Community Engagement Research and Postgraduate Studies at University of Pretoria, South Africa, shared the experience of organising e-service learning projects in collaboration with PolyU, including a project with the use of 360-degree cameras.
“You can imagine the field that we’ve opened, the global thinking that we’ve opened for those kids that never have a chance to talk to anybody really in another country.” She added, “None of these kids had ever gone outside of their province. Their world was so small and through these projects it became so huge.”
Despite challenges of power cut and limited Internet access in running the project, building global citizenship and bringing an amazing change to the students are rewarding. “It opens such a big world. Everyone does not focus anymore solely on their own community. It becomes a whole global village,” said Dr Jordaan.
Dr Mark Anthony D. Abenir, Associate Professor in the Development Studies Programme at Ateneo de Manila University, the Philippines, agreed that all of the SDGs can be achieved through partnerships that entail global, regional, national and local collaborations.
He commented that his University is very conscious in addressing society’s most pressing challenges and has identified four pillars to achieve social transformation. These include education, research, formation with character building of faculty members and students, and also meaningful social engagement.
Dr Abenir captured a collaboration with USRN when students were invited to join the Virtual Boot Camp a few months ago. Two of the student teams have developed mobile applications, one targeting the isolated elderly and the other for youth to build a virtual community especially at times of pandemic, and they have got the funding from USRN to further develop their innovations.
He said, “These are student owned projects funded by the University Social Responsibility Network. It is also a form of regional and global collaboration.” He quoted the motto of his University and concluded, “We are human beings for and with others. That’s why we’ll always be socially engaged.”