Volunteering and Development Research: time for a rethink

2 September 2015

If everything you knew about volunteering and development came from recent press and media, you would think that the most significant group of people to focus on were ‘gap year’ participants from the UK, Europe, North America or Australia. Indeed, even most academic research is focused on individual volunteers from the global North as they go off to volunteer in the global South, taking with them a recently found interest in their ‘host’ countries.

Ludiya, a volunteer teacher trainer, with a member of staff from Macchapuchhre Higher Secondary School in Nepal.

This has meant that the activities of other volunteers working in development – such as global South nationals volunteering in their own countries, who make up by far the largest number - have been eclipsed by a focus which reflects traditional conceptions of aid, popular imaginaries of charity and development, and histories of colonialism and mission.

So, despite their frequent association, we don’t have a very good understanding of the relationship between volunteering and development, how the former can contribute to the latter or, for that matter, vice versa.

New research challenging old perceptions

There is a growing body of research on volunteering and development that goes beyond these preoccupations. This includes:

Research on international volunteering is also looking beyond the ‘gap year’.

In our work together, Nina Laurie and I have explored how volunteering and development ideas interweave over time, the role of diaspora volunteers through a collaborative PhD with VSO, and faith, volunteering and development, and are now working on medical volunteering through North to South and South to North exchanges.

As important as the range of topics and approaches, is an opening up of who produces research and knowledge and how, with key volunteering actors developing high quality work to support their own and the sector’s activities.

Valuing Volunteering breaks ground in its content and methodology as well as in its partnership between IDS and VSO. Engaging over 3,700 volunteers across different countries and contexts, it asked volunteers and the communities they are working alongside how and why they thought volunteering contributed to change in their community and the factors that prevent it from doing so.

The IFRC Global Review of Volunteering, which I am working on with colleagues in Geneva, is another global development actor/academic partnership. It also breaks new ground by exploring volunteering across the global South and North, identifying shared challenges presented by issues such as increased global migration, forced displacements, and economic crises.

The changing geopolitics of development and its impact on volunteering

How volunteering is shaping and being shaped by the changing geopolitics of aid and development and rise of new aid donors provides a critical site for research.

South-South volunteering is not a new phenomenon – there are long histories of solidarities through volunteering between countries in the global South. But the interviews I have recently completed with individuals from China and the Philippines who have volunteered in Bangladesh, Kenya and Nepal, reveal dynamics, connections and hierarchies that have been largely ignored in volunteering research to date, but which speak directly to new debates around who is doing development, where and with whom.

As volunteering thinking and practice becomes widely accepted and globalized, often shaped by the volunteering ideas and experiences of the global North, there is an urgent need for more serious attention to the multiple ways volunteering is defined in and between settings.

Universal approaches can ease processes of measurement and policy mainstreaming, locating volunteering more firmly at the heart of contemporary practices of governance and development. But there is a risk that we lose sight of the specific ways volunteering happens in particular places, and that certain definitions and understandings dominate. It may also encourage new accountabilities and monitoring that reduce volunteering to only those activities that can be measured and restrict or disregard volunteering that falls outside of these activities.

Volunteering and development research in the future

The Global Review identifies the ways in which volunteers continue to be seen in some settings as a source of cheap labour to support aid and development service delivery. A central issue in this that we are exploring– resonating with Valuing Volunteering – has been the ways aid funded remuneration can create new volunteering economies and hierarchies that undermine sustained and inclusive volunteering in global South settings. Research is needed on who can volunteer, where and how, particularly given persistent inequalities within and between countries.

Valuing Volunteering marks an important step change in volunteering and development research. It not only provides crucial evidence of how and where volunteering has a distinct role to play in building the human and social capital that can lead to sustainable change, but also raises many questions to be explored through future research and practice.

To keep up the momentum will demand further innovation, collaborations and a commitment to addressing the silences and absences that have so far characterized research and public debate on the role of volunteers in development.

Matt Baillie Smith is Professor of International Development in the Department of Social Sciences and Languages and Director of the Centre for International Development at Northumbria University.

This is the fifth in a series of blogs relating to the Valuing Volunteering project. An IDS Bulletin on this theme is due out on 7th September.

Image: Ludiya, a volunteer teacher trainer, with a member of staff from Macchapuchhre Higher Secondary School in Nepal. Credit: VSO/Peter Caton 

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