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How volunteeering in development became “Duchessed”

How volunteeering in development became “Duchessed”

By Dr. Nichole Georgeou

Dr. Nichole Georgeou is currently an Honorary Research Fellow, Faculty of Arts, University of Wollongong. In 2013, she will commence at Australian Catholic University (Strathfield) as Lecturer in International Development Studies and Global Studies. Nichole is also a Board Member of Palms Australia.

There has been a surge in numbers of people volunteering abroad since the 1990s and the practice of tying development volunteering to the National Interest has exploded globally. There are well over 50,000 volunteers from the 23 OECD sending countries (plus programs sponsored by developing countries), working in development activities in any given year. The number of volunteers abroad,who are in government funded volunteering placements for periods of over one year, amounts to well over one-fifth of all skilled international personnel working in developing countries.

These numbers are swelled by a diversification in the form that development volunteering has taken including the proliferation of for-profit businesses in development volunteer sending (short term “voluntourism”), as well as e-volunteering, south-to-south volunteering and reverse volunteering.

Australia is part of this global trend and the Australian government has welcomed this interest. Like many other OECD countries Australia has linked volunteering closely to the aid program. These closer ties have removed the traditional radical elements from development volunteering that were present when the idea first emerged with work camps after WWI. Gone is the emphasis on cross-cultural engagement, participation and empowerment at the grassroots level of people in their own development. Now a service-driven approach has volunteers as the human face of Australian aid. They provide funded, specialist and “non-political” advice. Volunteering has become “duchessed”, but it looks great on a CV.

NGOs are part of civil society; they are formed by volunteers who have ideals and causes. By their very nature, they are political. Yet since 2004, for Australians, the ethos of volunteering for development has been methodically stripped of its political element. Australia’s volunteer sending program has been systematically restructured and integrated into our Overseas Development Aid agenda. In May this year the final nail went into the coffin. In line with other OECD countries, AusAID’s organisational restructure now clearly reflects a market-based logic. NGOs and businesses, which would appear to be two unlikely bedfellows, are now linked in the same section, while the Volunteer Branch has been delinked from NGOs and placed with Scholarships.

These changes in AusAIDs organisational structure exemplify the shift in the Australian Government’s volunteer sending program – one that has occurred in conjunction with the deepening of neoliberal ideology in Australian aid policy. Our “embedded neoliberalism” has provided the ideological and procedural rationales for the tendering and contracting out of volunteer sending to select “service providers”. It has firmly linked the objectives of creating open markets and efficient state sectors to serving Australia’s national interests. While the market is deified, the language of “participation” and “empowerment” is utilised to distract from the new managerial processes that facilitate and obscure the economic, ideological and political intent of these restructures in the overseas aid program.

In this context I employ the term “duchessed” to describe the “professionalisation” and “institutionalisation” of development volunteering. Old time leftists used the term duchessed to describe comrades neutralised of their radicalism when drawn into the system they opposed through flattery, rewards, promotions and other such enticements. Those duchessed maintained they were still true believers serving the cause. The term originally referred to people, but I use it here to describe the de-radicalising of once “dangerous” political ideas such as “participation”, “partnership” and “empowerment” that were once historically central to much development volunteer activity.

Since 2001, the Australian government has capitalised on this popular interest and recognised the importance of volunteer sending programs. It developed a series of Ministerial statements titled “Volunteers and the Aid program”. More recently, on 24 October 2011 when Australian Volunteers International (AVI) celebrated 60 years of volunteer sending at the Royal Perth Yacht Club, Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop, referred to volunteers as the “human face” of the aid program — they spread goodwill in our region and bring hope for a brighter future to thousands of developing communities. The Australian aid program also claims that volunteers build people-to-people linkages between Australia and developing countries. This veils the political agenda of volunteer assignments that “support the priorities of the Australian Government’s aid program”.

The emphasis in volunteering on “participation” and “partnership” masks the centrality of “national interest” to development aid. It is this radical contradiction in intent that often confronts development volunteers when their altruistic humanitarian concerns and motivations sit uncomfortably with the regional and economic agenda of the Australian government. Both the 2003 foreign policy White Paper and the 2006 overseas aid White Paper emphasised “Australia’s national interest”, and demonstrated a willingness to use the foreign aid budget to advance Australia’s regional and economic ambitions. This is now clearly seen in Australia’s increasing militarisation of the aid program, but also through its push at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in July 2012 in Rio for mining to be adopted as a sustainable development practice, and for aid to be used to promote private financing.

From “Participation” and “Empowerment” to “Vocationalisation”

Historically, “participation” referred to the process of redistributing power through the involvement of oppressed peoples in decisions that affected their lives and opportunities. The concept was shaped by the ideas of Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, who in the late 1940s, linked emancipation from poverty to the empowerment and liberation of disadvantaged people. He put this into practice in the 1960s. Political change was central to his praxis, and such an approach joined education and mass literacy programs to collectivist political agendas that were often anti-capitalist. Volunteers lived in solidarity with local people, working alongside them towards local agendas of political change — volunteering was a radical activity centred on cross-cultural relationships and learning.

Now volunteering has been “duchessed”, along with the emancipatory language of “participation”, “partnership” and “empowerment”; it is no longer seen as politically radical but as part of the “development industry”. While it looks good on CVs, the view of volunteering that now dominates is one disassociated from political action. Volunteering has been reconceptualised as “service provision”. This framework has been adopted by multilateral institutions and governments and is reflected in the Australian Government’s Volunteer Sending program. Specifically, development volunteering has been reduced to “technical exchange” and the transmission of skills.

The focus on service provision promotes the “vocationalisation” of volunteering. The emphasis is on the job to be done. Placements become assignments requiring particular “skill sets” within the development project. The direct linking of the aid program to volunteer sending agencies means local elites encourage placements that align with “good governance” agendas. The reconfiguring of institutions in recipient countries to speak to the market benefits the elites in both recipient and sending countries. Some 45% of volunteers work in the governance sector or professional bureaucratic positions in government departments. The remainder are spread among private enterprises, NGOs (often international) and educational institutions. Grassroots volunteer placements are becoming a thing of the past.

Ethical volunteering?

Development volunteering has been stripped of its political meaning and has lost its social justice and political dimensions — in short it has been “duchessed”. Government sponsored volunteer placements emphasise a technical approach of experts “doing development”. Yet, some volunteer agencies still cling doggedly to their principles. While the majority of volunteers are motivated by humanitarian and social justice concerns it is imperative they consider the political framework they engage in when they undertake development volunteering. They should carefully research the agenda of the sending organisation and the form of development that its placements promote.


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6 thoughts on “How volunteeering in development became “Duchessed”

  1. […] the above, as well as the opportunity to employ highly motivated individuals at low cost, or even foster closer political relationships between countries, a whole host of development organisations – from bilateral and multilateral donors to grassroots […]

  2. […] the above, as well as the opportunity to employ highly motivated individuals at low cost, or even foster closer political relationships between countries, a whole host of development organisations – from bilateral and multilateral […]

  3. […] the above, as well as the opportunity to employ highly motivated individuals at low cost, or even foster closer political relationships between countries, a whole host of development organisations – from bilateral and multilateral donors to grassroots […]

  4. […] an interesting opinion on the evolution of volunteering in international development and the potential for the opportunity to be used to further the goals of the sending country rather […]

  5. alex

    I was going to launch into attacking this article as bizarre and unsubstantiated, but instead I will ask this: in a follow up blog post could you please outline how you think an Australian government volunteer program should operate.

    I look forward to hearing how you would:
    – reconcile a seeming distaste for sending volunteers with ‘skills sets’ with a concept of aid effectiveness.
    – balance a reluctance to use volunteers in programs with developing country governments with a concept of country ownership.
    – resolve the problem that placements with local NGOs (which you seemingly in favour of) are consistently reported as the most ineffective by the volunteers themselves.

    I look forward to reading it.

    1. How do you think a volunteer program should operate Alex?

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