A volunteer for the Peace Corps joins in a community song and dance about HIV/AIDS awareness. As an integral part of international development, volunteerism should also ride with the changing tides of the sector. Photo by: Peace Corps

As the world becomes increasingly more connected and integrated due to globalization, technology and increased mobility, is there also a need to change how we look at volunteerism in the 21st century?

Definitely yes, according to Kevin Quigley, Peace Corps director in Thailand, who explained that volunteerism and how it impacts people’s lives — internally and externally — should ride with the changing tides of international affairs and development.

“We human beings learn best by doing. All these programs are based on reciprocity along with the goal of trying to promote volunteerism. The act of volunteering is meant to be a model for others,” he said during a breakout session at the Asia-Pacific Forum on Youth Volunteerism in Bangkok attended by Devex last week. The event was organized in conjunction with the International Young Leaders Assembly by UNESCO, UNESCAP, the Global Young Leaders Academy and the Global Peace Foundation.

Grete Thingelstead, deputy director of FK Norway, the Norwegian equivalent of the Peace Corps, added that cross-cultural skills and openness will be the key to making sure that volunteering can have the biggest positive impact for development.

“I think volunteering is one of the ways we learn best because it stretches and forces us to learn the kind of skills that is essential for us like cross-cultural ones. It is very important,” she said.

Volunteerism has been an integral part of international development. Many experts and beginners in the industry consider volunteering as an excellent way to break into the field along with expertise and information sharing as well as experience, while making a positive impact on other people’s lives. But as global development landscape evolves, donors tighten their budgets and more people are willing to do aid work, how will all that affect the current youth volunteer model?

For Quigley, the answer can be seen by comparing the old model of the Peace Corps as a government-funded program to today’s diversity of volunteer organizations.

“[The] Peace Corps is very much a 20th century model. What is that? It is government-funded. It sends Americans abroad. It’s a rigid model with three months of training followed by two years of service,” he said.

Quigley noted that the 21st century model of volunteering is “anything but that,” explaining that the difference can be seen in sources of funding and resources, flexibility of programs, length of time, quality and quantity of the projects — and the approach.

“The principles of volunteering are the same and applicable, but where we may be a little stuck in distinguishing are the difference in the approach,” he said. “That’s what we are trying to lift today: multilateral, up-down, down-up; north, south, east, west; in teams and individually; and using technology in various lengths of time and funded by different sources.”

Peter Britton, executive manager at Australian Volunteers International, further shared that volunteerism is about the relationships and connection that will be established through the exchange of people, although he admitted that, sometimes, government-funded volunteer programs get captured by the aid agenda.

“As the contract [with government] became tighter, I’d say the volunteer program, and I think this is happening internationally, has been drawn into the aid agenda,” he concluded. “So when the program started, it was about global citizenship but in a sense we’re captured by the aid agenda. There’s an increased emphasis on being able to respond to priorities.”

Tell us your own volunteer story on Facebook or tweet us using #DoingMore, and check out all Doing More content here.

Doing More is an ongoing conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Australian Red Cross, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, Scope Global (formerly Austraining International), United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.