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Re-imagining volunteerism: It’s time to hand over control

Re-imagining volunteerism: It’s time to hand over control

Australian volunteerism is all about building better partnerships, reciprocal learning and making Aussies more COSMOPOLITAN. Grab the vodka and cranberry juice! Just kidding …

My summation is drawn from the summary of findings of a refreshingly human-centered study titled Cosmopolitan development: the impacts of international volunteering. Released in 2016 this Australian Research Council funded research was conducted by Flinders University in partnership with Scope Global.

Ever since the 1950s Colombo Plan Aussie volunteers have been jet setting to foreign shores in the name of development. Essentially this entails technically skilled and socially willing volunteers working with host organisations to improve their capacity and in turn help other countries develop socio-economically.

Volunteering has always been the backbone of the international development industry, with a majority of organisations having more volunteers than paid staff. For instance, the Australian Red Cross has over 20,000, Oxfam Australia over 4,000 and well, we all know the UN would be a much scrawnier bureaucracy without its 4,000 “gratis personnel” aka onslaught of unpaid interns or the 8,000 volunteers who make up its special volunteer program.

But as the summary of findings points out, much is assumed and little is actually known about the direct and indirect impacts of bilateral-aid volunteer initiatives. This is due to most of existing research being solely aimed at evaluating programatic outputs for accountability purposes, so that those vital funding wheels keep spinning merrily along.

While measuring the actual output productivity of volunteer programs is important and should continue to be built into program design, output-focused evaluations are usually conducted internally and often fail to capture what is really going on beneath the surface.

In seeking to fill this knowledge gap the research “sought to capture the distinctive contributions of international development volunteerism (IDV) to development assistance and people-to-people links”. It asks how IDV enables the building of development partnerships and to what extent it produces or consolidates “cosmopolitan orientations” in volunteers and host organisations.

The study fills an important gap in that it focuses on the relationships that underpin the partnerships brokered between volunteers and host organisations. Researchers interviewed, surveyed and work-shopped with 140 volunteers and host organisation staff involved in the government-supported Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program. AVID oversees the placement, through companies like Scope Global, of around 1200 volunteers within overseas (predominantly Indo-Pacific) host organisations, both government and non-government.

The report discusses the interesting, if not somewhat predictable findings about the values, perceptions and experiences of volunteers and host organisation representatives. Here’s a run-down with brief commentary:

  1. Building partnerships: volunteers and host organisation staff value collaborative partnerships built on equality and shared work ethics.

“When IDV works well, it provides spaces for the exchange of skills and knowledge, for collaboration between people from different cultures and with different sets of experiences, and for nurturing locally owned solutions to complex challenges.”

No…really? Given the amount of international effort (such as the Bunsan accord) that has gone into recasting the ‘donor-beneficiary’ dichotomy into the fairer and more equanimous notion of partnership, it seems monotonous to harp on about it. But the truth is that a lot of organisations continue to perpetuate donor–recipient approaches. And so we keep dropping buzz-phrases like partnership, gender and disability inclusion into the discourse hoping today’s rhetoric will become tomorrow’s reality.

At worst, if the research community doesn’t keep highlighting the importance of mutual learning in partnerships, unscrutinised volunteer programs will continue to perpetuate outdated approaches to development.

How can we work on giving host organisations even more agency to direct volunteer placements? (Credit: Tamara Baillie/AusAID, Wikimedia Commons)
How can we work on giving host organisations even more agency to direct volunteer placements? (Credit: Tamara Baillie/AusAID, Wikimedia Commons)

For example, certain types of volunteering such as the heavily criticised activities that compromise “voluntourism” have gained a bad rap in the development scene. Fraught with paternalistic attitudes, projects encouraging un-or-under skilled Westerns to slap a short-term placement on the tail end of a backpacking venture are often ineffective and do little more than help Westerners feel they are ‘doing good’.

Despite being more evidence-based and better executed, government-funded initiatives still need to take note of volunteering faux pas and ensure they are not perpetuating notions of the ‘white industrial savior complex’ by positioning the Westerner as the hero figure being flown in to help those who cannot help themselves.

  1. Capacity building and reciprocal learning. Building competencies is not a one-way street. Volunteers gain just as much knowledge and skills development through their placements (sometimes more) as the organisations they are assisting.

“Working collaboratively was considered a more distinctive feature of volunteerism than developing capacity in host organisations (‘passing on knowledge’) or volunteers (‘building the skills of international volunteers’), or serving the needs of local organisations.”

Development is not a one-way street. Again, it may not be earth shattering to discover that it takes two to eloquently execute the capacity-building tango. Another important, yet equally obvious finding was that language competency and knowledge of the local context improved volunteers’ likelihood of relating well with host organisation staff. So budding volunteers: start polishing those language acquisition skills.

Even more importantly, this finding indicates that true collaboration is really about a balance of power. It’s about mutual learning and entering into partnerships with a willingness to adapt, rather than hold steadfastly to one way of approaching an issue or challenge.

  1. Developing cosmopolitan orientations.

Cocktail-related puns’ aside, having a cosmopolitan orientation involves recognising that communities are increasingly interconnected through transnational social, economic and environmental processes. Though it’s also an eloquent way of highlighting that sending volunteers overseas makes Australia look good. It improves our global image.

This last point is very important. Sometimes it’s about building relationships and establishing connections across borders. Recalling my own experiences volunteering in rural India, I really valued the opportunity to learn a different way of life to the one I was accustomed to.

Okay, it’s not in the research, but whether it be over tea, coffee, juice or vodka, at the end of the day spending time learning about each other will help us all develop ‘cultural competencies’, challenge our own beliefs and assumptions about life and help us make meaningful global connections in an increasingly interconnected world.

Handing over the reins…

Reading the list of key recommendations provided in the findings, it’s clear that what the report is really saying can be simplified thus: host organisations should have more control over projects and volunteers. Boosting the role of host organisations when it comes to choosing volunteers and managing placements is pivotal because ‘local’ organisations stand a better chance of knowing how new staff can help their organisation on the ground than program officers based in Canberra. No amount of expat knowledge or skill can prepare a volunteer to face the cultural, political, technical or environmental barriers of a foreign country context.

Despite the value of this research, I remain unconvinced about the extent to which these findings will result in better practices within AVID. Amid ongoing budget cuts and emphasis on aid-for-trade, talk of mutual partnerships built on a shared work ethic and collaboration can seem a little idealistic.

There is a saying that goes ‘what you do for me, but without me, is against me’ but I prefer the version ‘what you do for me, without me, you do to me’ (some attribute this to Gandhi while others say it’s a Congolese proverb). At the heart of both is the notion that the best way to help someone is to work in solidarity with them.

I think that whether the AVID program can achieve this level of joint collaboration in volunteer programs and across our borders relies on this notion of re-imagining of volunteerism by abandoning the western do-gooder narrative and ensuring more volunteer oversight is given to our overseas partners.

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Zoe Enticott

Zoe Fawcett Enticott is WhyDev's Project Manager of the Colab m mentorship initiative. She is a recent Master of Development Studies graduate with a background in community development and an interest in all things South Asia.

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