The power of connecting insider and outsider relationships

29 April 2015

How does volunteering contribute to tackling poverty and marginalisation, what are its challenges and what can we learn from the unique relationships between volunteers and local communities? These were just some of the questions the Valuing Volunteering Project, a two year global action research initiative conducted by IDS and VSO, sought to address.

As co-director of the project, I have found it insightful on many fronts. Perhaps the most important has been a deepening of my understanding of what we call insider-outsider relationships.

  • An insider is someone who lives and works in a community.
  • An outsider is someone from elsewhere.

In a volunteering context that could be an international volunteer or a national volunteer from a different place, for example coming from the city to work in a rural village.

Many of the best outcomes were generated when outsiders were able to build close trusting relationships with insiders

The research showed that many of the best outcomes were generated when outsiders were able to build close trusting relationships with insiders. This enabled a strong interaction between local knowledge and networks of community trust (bonding social capital), and external knowledge and wider networks (bridging social capital).

Where volunteering works well, volunteers are able to get closer to the inside because they are able to embed themselves more readily within communities, for example, young people often stay with host families; volunteers don't have much money so are not seen to be quite so distant, etc.

This observation is intrinsically important, but I have found it to have wider implications. It has helped me conceptualise the answer to a question posed with clarity by Andrea Cornwall, one which has long been a conundrum for development practitioners. In her article Whose Voices? Whose Choices? Reflections on Gender and Participatory Development, Professor Cornwall asks whether participation over-emphasizes the local without understanding the wider structural causes of poverty.

While in the book Realizing rights: transforming approaches to sexual and reproductive rights (edited by Cornwall), Overs, Doezema and Shivdas say:

"local people are presumed to know best, even if they advocate the chastisement of younger women who step out of line or indeed the repression of women considered to be “loose"

What is being highlighted here is the uncomfortable tension between an anti-colonial position which asserts that we should not be imposing Western values and norms on the South, and a values based position on issues such as patriarchy which asserts that deeply entrenched inequalities cannot be left unchallenged just because they represent cultural traditions and local social norms.

No change is sustainable without local acceptance and adoption, but...

One thing that we know is that no change is sustainable without local acceptance and adoption, but there are many examples of where this change has happened nonetheless, either through force, incentives, or by creating a belief in the cultural supremacy of the West. There are better ways to stimulate sustainable change.

Change happens when something new interacts with the status quo. This process can lead to the adoption (and/or adaptation) of the new, or, its rejection.

Let us polarise a spectrum of activity for a moment.

In the VSO research we saw on the one hand examples of international volunteers who were set up as experts, in order to "teach the natives how to teach".

On the other hand, there were volunteers who became embedded in communities, built relationships and trust and opened up a dialogue about how some of the new methods they brought might interact and find synergies with what was great about traditional methods.

Similarly, women were able to model different ways of being simply by being present and visible as knowledgeable, independent and autonomous people. This is not about imposing a way of being on others, and saying "you must be like this". It is a rather a process which communicates "it is possible to be like this" and poses the question ‘what would it look like to be these things in your culture’. This sort of engagement does not require an answer, it simply poses questions.

I think that in this way we can conceptualise interventions which are simultaneously progressive and subject local power relationships to critical scrutiny without being colonial in their nature. What follows from this of course, is that we should be just as open to inviting difference from other countries which can challenge and illuminate our own assumptions and practices.

This blog is the second in a series relating to the Valuing Volunteering project. An IDS Bulletin on this theme is due out in July.

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