Agents of change: Recognizing the role of volunteer action in sustainable development

Eric Mwiteneza receives technical help and materials for his film and photographic business from VSO volunteer Fred Kasozi from Uganda, who works as a livelihood advisor in Rwanda. Credit: Peter Caton/VSO

There is growing recognition that the development framework that will succeed the Millennium Development Goals must ensure a more bottom-up approach to development, one that puts people at its heart and leaves no one behind. To be able to achieve this, it is important that the post-2015 framework looks beyond traditional development approaches and actors.

In designing this framework, we in the global development community have a unique opportunity to think about and encourage a model of development that moves beyond a focus on financial and technical assistance to one that supports more people-centred approaches. And this is where we can really celebrate and learn from the ways that volunteers work — truly from the bottom up.

“Despite the overwhelming evidence of the contribution of volunteers to development, they often remain at the margins of the development debate.”

— Helen Clark, United Nations Development Program administrator

Volunteer action is the invisible hand in more development solutions than many people think.  In Tanzania, volunteers make up three quarters of the civil society workforce and in Uganda they are estimated to fill more than half of civil society jobs. A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University in 36 countries estimated that if volunteers were all packed into one country, it would be the ninth largest country in the world.

One of the many lessons we’ve learned from the MDGs is that focusing on the end result, while failing to acknowledge the means by which development can and does happen, limits our ability to affect change. Civil society is a critical partner in achieving people-centered development, and one of the ways we can bolster civic participation in development solutions is through volunteering.

As an organization whose development programs have been supported by community and international volunteers for more than 50 years, VSO sees firsthand that volunteering is a powerful and practical way to tackle poverty and inequality. At its heart, volunteering is a way that individuals step forward — either as local, national or global citizens — to make meaningful and positive change in a way that is often more sustainable than other approaches. Community action through volunteering allows people to gain skills, find their voice, act on the issues that most affect them, increase their ownership over how their community changes and, at its best, can improve governance and ensure that decision-makers are held to account for their actions.

Community voluntary action is a powerful way to build trust and relationships across different groups. As we continue to research and understand the circumstances under which volunteers have an impact in development, we have greater insight into the breadth and depth of the spectrum of volunteer action. This spectrum ranges from very informal self help groups such as mothers’ groups supporting Ghanaian girls’ education to organized collective action like community caregivers extending the reach of HIV and AIDS services in Zimbabwe. The act of volunteering helps create a bridge between “hard” development outcomes, such as increased numbers of children in secondary schools, and “softer” development outcomes such as increased community buy-in to solutions and greater participation and influence for individuals in decision-making processes.

I truly believe that the post-2015 framework will benefit from the mass action of volunteers, in all their forms, in the following ways:  

1. Volunteers will be central to implementing the framework.

They can and do strengthen the capacity of the existing workforce and extend the reach of services beyond the capability of formal systems. The Red Cross Red Crescent network of volunteers extends the reach of the Red Cross by a ratio of 1 to 327 in sub-Saharan Africa — meaning that for every paid member of staff, there are 327 volunteers. Globally, they average 20 volunteers to every paid member of staff.

2. Volunteers work in a participatory way and help create shared ownership of development solutions.  

Individuals volunteering on local school management committees, for example, come together to act as a collective force. They begin to represent a link between the community, school management and local education officials, providing community members with an opportunity to have a greater say in how local education programmes are designed and delivered.

3. Volunteering is a pathway to active citizenship and participation in decision-making.  

Active citizenship and the participation of people are principles that must underpin our approach to development.  Volunteering is often one of the first ways in which individuals start to take a more active role within their community, be it local or global. Through the process of volunteering, people become aware of their rights and ability to lead their own development. At the same time, volunteers can act as a catalyst, prompting and helping others to take action in numerous ways. By helping to organize collective voice and  identifying spaces for that voice to be channelled, they increase the average citizen’s ability to have a say over services within their community, and to hold decision-makers to account.

Now is the time for us to learn from the MDGs and build on them to create a better successor framework. To maximize the benefits that volunteering brings to development, we need to include volunteer groups, from the start, in strategies for how the framework will be implemented at a national and local level. We need also to consider what infrastructure is needed to support volunteers to maximise their many positive contributions, to ensure their voice and participation in development processes and, where necessary, to provide the training they need to deliver the quality services we rely on them for.

Doing so will not only maximize the positive contributions of volunteering, but also protect against their misuse. This will in turn help to contribute to solutions that are sustainable and put people at the center of development cooperation.

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 Austraining International, Cuso International, IFRC, MovingWorlds, Peace Corps, United Nations Volunteers, Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance and VSO.

About the author

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    Kate Cotton

    Kate Cotton is global adviser, volunteering for development at VSO, the world’s leading independent international development organization that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries. Kate joined VSO from Save the Children Australia and combines extensive experience in the development sector with a genuine passion for understanding and enabling community participation through volunteering.