Valuing Volunteering for a post-2015 era

18 March 2015

I’ve just returned from the London launch of The Role of Volunteering in Sustainable Development. This hard-hitting new report from IDS and VSO, written by Danny Burns, leader of our Participation Cluster, explores the unique contributions of volunteering, by national as well as international volunteers, to tackling poverty and marginalisation.

A round of applause for Ebola survivor, Sewa Mansaray (21), at the Kerry Town treatment centre near Freetown, Sierra Leone. Sewa, a Sierra Leonean healthcare worker, is one of hundreds of Ebola survivors treated at British-built centres across the country. Image credit: James Fulker/DFID

The value of volunteering has been highlighted in the post-2015 debate. With the mass of UK volunteers helping deal with Ebola in Sierra Leone, it has caught media attention.

And in times of austerity and aid ‘value for money’ it can appear an attractive way to deliver development. Plus almost everyone in the development sector has their – usually shiningly positive – volunteer story. Either they were once a volunteer in Timbuktu or Nepal, or they were inspired by someone who was. This was certainly true of all who spoke at tonight’s launch.

But what is it in particular that volunteering can bring, and what are its dangers and challenges?

Assessing this requires more than anecdote – it needs rigorous research. And that is exactly what this project sought to provide.

Long-term partnership, engaged research - a rare gift in policy-oriented research

Several things are worth noting about this research.

Firstly, it was built around a sustained partnership, in which mutual learning and relations of trust were built, something we value at IDS and see as central to our Engaged Excellence approach. We do a lot of work with VSO, but particularly value the highly co-equal partnership nature of this project which evolved iteratively over four years with strong input from both IDS and VSO.

Second, it was long-term. The project involved four VSO researchers in country (Nepal, Mozambique, Kenya, the Philippines) for a full two years each. This degree of length and depth is a rare gift in policy-oriented research.

Third, it was, as a a result, able to be really rigorous. Using a variety of different participatory processes the researchers directly engaged over 3,500 participants – volunteers and community members across their countries. This enabled robust analysis and conclusions with regard to broader patterns and key messages, as well as a rich diversity of cases exploring the detailed dynamics of change.

Volunteers can occupy a unique ‘insider-outsider,’ bridging and brokering position

Amongst an array of important findings, highlights include the importance of relationships. 

Often embedded within communities, volunteers have opportunities to build relationships that professionals cannot or do not. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Young people are sometimes better able to connect with their peers or can develop good relationships because they are living with host families
  • Volunteers may have more time to follow through relationships even after they have delivered services
  • Sometimes volunteers are trusted because people can see that they are acting out of altruism.

Whatever the specifics, all this adds up to a strongly relational approach.

This means that volunteers are well placed to engage in work which is more about brokering change and shifting attitudes than about ‘delivery'. Given that most extreme poverty has less to do with lack of resources and services and more to do with power relations that restrict some people’s access to them, this is rather key.

Volunteers can also occupy a unique ‘insider-outsider,’ bridging and brokering position. Their work is often most effective when ‘insider’ knowledge is combined with that of an ‘outsider’ – whether an international or a national volunteer, but essentially someone who is not local and not caught up in local social and power dynamics. When volunteers really understand local needs and can help connect them to wider political processes through networks and external contacts, then they can contribute to extraordinary successes in combatting poverty and exclusion.

Volunteering can also bring advantages in access and ethics. Volunteers often work in places that NGOs and government agencies are reluctant to reach – whether isolated Himalayan villages or tough slum communities in Kenya. We saw examples where volunteers modelled a work ethic to professionals, the potential of civic action to community members, and different gender norms to both women and men.

Limitations and lessons of volunteering

These are some of the unique strengths of volunteering, but the report also reveals strong drivers pushing against this potential.

For example many volunteers are still ‘marketed’ as experts, leading the resulting relationships to be one way. Equally there is a fine line between co-equal cultural exchange and learning in volunteering relationships, and the imposition of external norms.

Most volunteering agencies also have very little capacity to analyse power and political relationships. As a result, volunteers are sometimes left floundering, unsupported while trying to navigate issues fundamentally affected by the church, political parties, caste and ethnic relations, or histories of instability.

And there are circumstances in which an over-reliance on volunteering can let states and civil society professionals off the hook of development delivery, or contribute to fragmented approaches that fail to build strong, coherent, resilient systems in areas like health, economy and environment.

What now? Building learning processes into action

These and other issues need reviewing. VSO is now building a learning process into its organisation to ensure that this research, and more generally participatory processes to inform planning, fundamentally inform its approach and practices. There are lessons here too for other volunteering for development organisations.

It would also be good to see the modelling of deeply embedded participatory action research into development processes, as demonstrated here, become a wider legacy from which other development organisations, within and outside the volunteering sector, might learn.

With these implications attended to, we can hope to see a proper balancing of the benefits and risks of volunteering. This will ensure that it makes a real contribution to the aspiration to ‘leave no-one behind’ so central in the report of the High Level Panel that has informed this year’s Sustainable Development Goals – and ultimately to development processes as they unfold beyond 2015.

Image: Ebola survivor and healthcare worker, Sewa Mansaray, receives a round of appluase from colleagues at the Kerry Town treatment centre near Freetown, Sierra Leone. Credit: James Fulker/DFID

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

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