All posts by Sarah Huxley

Sarah has been actively engaged in child/youth-focused development work since 1999, including direct experience in program management, capacity building and policy research in Nepal, Uganda and the UK, with a diverse range of organisations, including small NGOs, international agencies and the UN. Sarah’s special areas of interest and expertise are participation,/governance, youth policy/strategy, child rights, education, protection and post conflict transitions. From 2008-2010 she was the Project Manager and lead writer for the ‘Youth Participation in Development’ guideYouth Guidance Project, which was initiated by the DFID- Civil Society Working Group on Youth (see:

Why is volunteerism so widely maligned?

In April, I was fortunate to attend an event organised by VSO. It was the unveiling of their official partnership with United Nations Volunteers (UNV), including the launch of UNV’s first ever State of the World’s Volunteerism Report 2011.

The title of the event, “Framing the future of development:  putting people first”, was intriguing. In essence, it puts volunteerism at the centre of participatory development approaches by both acknowledging the forthcoming focus on creating the next international framework  (post Millennium Development Goals), and winking at the past (via association to Robert Chamber’s seminal 1983 book “Rural Development: Putting the Last First”).

As I sat and listened to Flavia Pansieri, Executive Coordinator of UNV, and Marg Mayne, Chief Executive of VSO, I was struck by the perhaps unsurprising convergence of discourses. They expressed a need for “social development to converge with economic development”, and the importance of “active citizenship” which gives rise to “the voices of people to influence policy-making”. I did have a moment where a cynical voice said “isn’t this what was being said in the 1980s?” Perhaps, but I think there are some fundamental differences, including the emergence of information and communications technologies in development, and the increasing importance of establishing systems for accountability.

As a former volunteer for a range of organisations in different capacities, I began to ask myself the question: well, if volunteering is such a dynamic and (dare I say it, at risk of compounding its overuse) robust approach, then why is it still underestimated and under-used? It is often viewed as an activity either for the young or the retired in the so-called global North. Or it remains invisible amongst the everyday acts of service and community responsibility acted out in collective societies (for example the Guthi system in Nepal).

And so, here are a few reflections as to what I think is holding back the role of volunteerism in development:

1. VSO and UNV espouse that “volunteerism is a universal concept”, which can mean that it becomes a way of doing (and being) that is everything and nothing at the same time.  The UN General Assembly (2001) defines it as: not for financial reward; based on free will; and of benefit to someone else. There are several threads of volunteerism which are informal and perhaps invisible. Indeed volunteers may also not want to be seen or to be recorded/labelled as such, because this very visibility can detract from the value of service. It is in some respects the quintessential “do gooder” label, which is imbued with a series of contextual power relations.

2. In many countries in the so-called Global South, volunteerism is often perceived as something foreigners do. The State of the World’s Volunteerism report sees this as problematic and states that, “in parts of the ‘developing’ world, the term ‘volunteer’ is a recent import from the North and refers essentially to expressions of international volunteering…[it] still flies under the radar, yet many societies would be hard pressed to function without it” (2011:3). Robert Leigh, the lead author of the report noted that there is still a tendency to also write that “national volunteers are written of as providing service in kind, rather than as volunteers”. Again, what does this tell us about the power relations (as Bourdieu would be quick to analyse) and what are the consequences of this?

3. Volunteerism is not inherently good. Just because a person is a volunteer, it doesn’t mean that they are: a) a good person; b) doing a good job. I know this is somewhat of an obvious statement, but there is a lot of naivety out there. Marg Mayne reminded the audience that it’s about getting “the right volunteer into the right (needed) placement, and supported by the right people”. No easy feat!

4. There should be more emphasis on the processes of volunteering, rather than on the end effect on the individual volunteer. In this way, volunteerism becomes less about the end in itself (i.e. a fulfilled, personally developed volunteer), but rather about the how, and the what (i.e. the evidence of positive/negative outcomes on a community). Volunteers can be amazing channels/tools that bring adaptation and innovation. But there needs to be more evidence of this, and as Danny Burns from Institute for Development Studies said, “if you are not looking for it – you won’t find it!”.

5. A tension that can arise with volunteerism, which essentially is related to the nature of exchange, and that these are clearly articulated by all people involved. Although a volunteer is doing something for no financial gain, is there something else that they are hoping to gain in return? Is it a time bound exchange? Can volunteers voice a change in expectations? Are there opportunities for the relationship/identity to change? Managing expectations is crucial.

6. “Volunteerism is a way to get out of marginalisation”. I was struck by this statement made by Flavia Pansieri. Indeed, there is a whole chapter on this in the report. VSO and UNV are commissioning some research on the impact of volunteerism, which I think is very timely indeed.  I look forward to the evidence generated from this, which will no doubt further the learning from which Flavia’s statement springs. How volunteerism is talked about is very important. It is a similar challenge in the youth development field, in which I work.  The normative role of volunteerism is transitional – volunteering is something you do at a transitional stage (young/old in life) for a given period of time. Yet, as the UNV’s report highlights, this is a limited view of volunteerism; it is an approach for development for all ages.

You no doubt have some of your own reflections/experiences to add and challenge me with – please do so with a comment below.

In the meantime, hats off to the volunteers behind whydev,  Brendan, Weh and Allison – a refreshing example of collaborative volunteerism in action.