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Volunteering and the straitjacket of capacity building

Volunteering and the straitjacket of capacity building

Many Australians working in development had their first professional experience through the Australian Government’s prestigious Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, with either Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development (AYAD) or Australian Volunteers International (AVI) assignments.

But how effective are these programs actually? Do they translate to good development?

AVI Volunteer Dorinda Britto and Dr .Soun Nimol (Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital) with midwifery students from the Technical School for Medical Care. Photo credit: Harjono Djoyobisono, AVI
AVI Volunteer Dorinda Britto and Dr. Soun Nimol (Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital) with midwifery students from the Technical School for Medical Care. Photo credit: Harjono Djoyobisono, AVI

It was questions like these that led the Australian Government’s Office of Development Effectiveness (ODE) to evaluate AVID. The ODE evaluation surveyed host organizations across Cambodia, Vietnam and the Solomon Islands, and drew on another survey commissioned by AusAID on returned volunteers. The 2014 Evaluation of the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program details the findings.

Stephen Howes, director of the Development Policy Centre, recently wrote a three-piece series reviewing the report and discussing its key findings. Howes analyses the AVID program and its aims and methodology, as well as the methodology and approach of the ODE. In doing so, he highlights several key problems with AVID’s development approach and with the ODE’s proposed solutions.

The ‘Straitjacket’ of Capacity Building

One of Howes’ main criticisms is that the ODE evaluates the AVID program through the lens of capacity development, the “holy grail” of aid.

Capacity development in the ODE report requires that a volunteer placement “generate new forms of capacity from within the organization without long-term dependence on the volunteer.” Successful capacity development is measured by criteria such as “whether host organisations believe Australian volunteers to have ‘helped our organization better manage our own affairs.’” The volunteer program scored poorly against this criterion, and as a result, the report concludes by recommending that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) “refocus the AVID program on developing the long-term capacity of host organizations.”

However, this low score may also be the result of the restrictive definition of “capacity development” being used. The evaluation found that, while volunteers are appreciated for the skills they transfer, “Skill transfer is not counted as capacity development, but as ‘sustainable capacity.’” Here, the ODE defines capacity development as when “a host organization is able to leverage the work of a volunteer to generate new forms of capacity from within the organisation without long-term dependence on the volunteer,” whereas sustainable capacity is when “a host organisation is able to maintain the new capacity after a volunteer leaves.” While these distinctions are minor and seem arbitrary, the ODE report insists on their separation.

The emphasis on capacity development, as defined in the evaluation, also does not reflect the nature of most AVID assignments. Almost one third of AVID assignments are in-line positions, followed by technical advisor-type positions (29%), then team mentor assignments (27%). As Howes notes, “Refocusing on capacity development doesn’t make sense for the 33% of volunteers in in-line positions. Capacity development can be one role played by in-line volunteers, but it clearly isn’t going to be the main game for them.” The kind of capacity building these positions best offer is through on-the-job skills transfers, rather than specific capacity building activities or technical workshops. Still, the form of capacity building in-line volunteers can offer deserves greater recognition.

Howes contends that a more sensible definition of capacity development and more realistic expectations would have led the evaluation to conclude that “the volunteer program ticks the capacity development box more than adequately (primarily through skill transfer), not that the program should be refocused on it.” However, unfortunately, at no point in the evaluation does the ODE report reflect on whether its definition of capacity development is realistic.

Cost of Volunteering

One of the most important areas the ODE evaluation considers is whether the outcomes of AVID assignments justify their costs. On average, the evaluation calculates that the cost of an AVID volunteer for one year is about $70,000 (AUD). Howes notes that a very telling question, one that host organisations were not asked, would have been whether they would prefer the volunteer or a $70,000 donation. The fact this was not asked goes to show that AVID isn’t a straightforward development program aiming to support local organisations through the best means possible.

To its credit, however, the evaluation did ask host organisations whether they believe a national could have done the job as well as the Australian volunteer. While most organizations from Vietnam and the Solomon Islands said no, approximately half of Cambodian organisations answered yes. If volunteers are taking the place of skilled national staff, this not only denies an employment opportunity and local ownership, but could also negatively impact the sustainability of a project by replacing someone who could potentially stay long-term with a shorter-term volunteer. This is very concerning, and Howes recommends further investigation to explore it. As Cambodia receives the second highest number of AVID volunteers of any country, for instance, perhaps too many assignments are allocated here.

Length of Assignments

A key finding of the ODE’s host organisation survey was that “longer-term assignments are more likely to be successful.” While most AYAD assignments are nine to twelve months and most AVI assignments are one to two years, the report found that the average AVID assignment is six to twelve months. Furthermore, a quarter of volunteer assignments end up being shortened due to volunteer dissatisfaction with in-country support or with the role itself. But despite this finding, Howes found that the “report did not recommend the most obvious solution: have more long-term assignments.”

The survey also found that some volunteers and organisations wanted the ability to extend assignments that were going well. Despite this, empowering country managers with the flexibility to lengthen promising assignments was not included in the ODE report’s recommendations.

What the report does recommend are three-year capacity development plans with selected organisations. However, DFAT promises in its management response long-term capacity development plans with all host organisations. But as Howes points out, more plans are the last thing we need. The evaluation shows that half of the single-assignment plans currently required are not adhered to (44% of volunteers reported that their job did not match the position description). With such a high degree of variance, multiple assignment plans would be even less relevant. The better solution would be to identify and replicate assignments that succeeded. As Howes put it, AVID should “build on success, not plans.”

Keeping in mind the limitations of short-term assignments and three-year plans with revolving staff members, Howes recommends “delinking the volunteer program from a capacity building straitjacket (for example, by not requiring the assignment of a counterpart).” This “would enable a much more flexible approach to be taken, with more emphasis on what the volunteer can usefully do while in country, and greater likelihood of positive results.” In essence, it would lead to better development.

This post was based on Stephan Howes’ three-part series on DevPolicy Blog. To read more, see Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

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Laurence Phillips

Laurie is humanitarian analyst with a strong background in migration, assessment and evaluation. Laurie is currently an analyst employed with a social justice consulting firm in Melbourne. Prior to this, he worked on the Syria crisis from Turkey, analysing migration patterns and determining humanitarian needs of IDPs, and in Beijing and Bangkok with the ILO as a technical specialist on anti-trafficking and anti-child labour projects. Laurie has also worked in public health and good governance development projects in China with the ILO and UNDP, and has a background in protection-related work in Australia. He has a Masters in International Relations, specialising in post-conflict studies.

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One thought on “Volunteering and the straitjacket of capacity building

  1. I was discussing the issue of assignment length with a fellow volunteer recently. I think the argument for longer assignments doesn’t take into account a number of factors such as volunteer burnout and the difficulty galvanising host organistions to work with a volunteer when they think they have plenty of time to utilise them. In my previous volunteer assignment I achieved far more in the last month because the host organisation finally came to the realisation they needed to engage with me to achieve something before I left. Moreover, its unrealistic to expect volunteers to undertake assignments longer than a year without providing additional benefits such as an optional trip home for R&R. In my experience the real challenge is actually building the capacity of a host organisation to make best use of a volunteer. It should be the responsibility of the AVID program to carry out such capacity building with the host organisation prior to mobilising a volunteer in the same way that volunteers are required to undertake predeparture training.

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