South-south volunteering: From one developing country to another

Fred Kasozi uses smoke to make the bees sleepy so he could open the hive. Kasozi, who is a VSO volunteer and livelihood advisor, helps the remote disabled community of Shori village in Rwanda to collect honey from beehives. Photo by: Peter Caton / VSO

Fred Kasozi works for a small organization focused on creating livelihoods in his home country, Uganda. But in early 2013, he left that job to become a volunteer in a provincial district in Ngororero, Rwanda, to share his entrepreneurial skills with people with disabilities.

It was his first international volunteering experience.

Kasozi said most of the volunteers he meets in his own country are expats from rich nations like the United States or the United Kingdom, but not so much from low-income countries like his own.

“I thought it’s high time we start with what we have and I started with myself,” he told Devex from Rwanda, where he is currently involved in a pilot partnership project by Voluntary Services Overseas to increase income-generating opportunities with beekeeping cooperatives.

It’s a mixed picture. Since many donor agencies have their own volunteering programs, like the Peace Corps in the United States, the perception is that most volunteers come from rich nations.

However, if one looks at more globally independent organizations like U.N. Volunteers, there’s been historically huge interest among individuals from the “global south” to engage in volunteering efforts, whether it’s national, international or online. For instance, more than 80 percent of UNV’s 6,807 international volunteers and over 62 percent of the 11,037 individuals who took part in the organization’s online volunteering scheme in 2012 came from developing countries.

And this south-south volunteering has been gaining recognition recently within the United Nations system and other development circles, Jennifer Stapper, head of communications at UNV, told Devex.

Specific skill sets

Why only now? Could it be due to the emerging body of evidence of the value volunteers from developing countries bring to development programs? That’s not clear yet. But almost everyone Devex spoke to concurs: These volunteers have a specific set of knowledge and understanding accumulated from personal and professional experiences in their own countries. Those from countries that have experienced conflict like Liberia, for instance, can empathize with and have a better understanding of what the people feel like when sent to hot spots like South Sudan or the Central African Republic.

Kasozi agrees, although he also argues that volunteers coming from richer nations do have something unique to offer, especially in countries that are also moving toward or working to become developed countries themselves.

But like those from the West, encouraging people from the south to volunteer also has its challenges.

Take the case of the Philippines, where highly skilled professionals that meet VSO’s requirements — no younger than 26 years old and with three to five years of solid working experience in the relevant field — often have high-paying jobs, Ailene Ponce, a marketing officer at one of the organization’s local recruitment hubs, told Devex.

There are also applicants who, while finding international volunteering “interesting,” would always opt for volunteering opportunities locally or those at least closer to home.

Kasozi himself turned down an earlier opportunity to go to the Gambia because it was “too far” from Uganda. And in Malawi, meanwhile, where he was to work in organic farming given his agriculture experience, he quit after learning he needed to ride a motorbike to and from the field.

Supply and demand

The specific skills that VSO looks for is also narrowing its pool of potential candidates. Ponce said for every application they receive, at least one is turned down.

“So even though I’m looking for teachers, I can’t say I’m just looking for teachers. They have to at least have three years of experience, who is an LET passer and who can train other teachers,” she said.

VSO started early this year to do more direct recruitment, going straight to professional associations and asking for referrals.

These challenges may not be across the board, though. UNV offers a wide range of volunteering opportunities, so applicants often have the option whether to volunteer in their home countries or abroad. And because of its branding — as part of the United Nations system — Stapper thinks they “have a special advantage” and people find it appealing to work for the U.N.

Stapper thinks there’s actually an increased interest in this “volunteer mix,” and when it comes to gender and age, she’s seeing a growing number of female volunteers in peacekeeping missions as well as youth volunteers in development programs.

“In some countries, the majority of the population especially in the global south is under the age of 26,” the UNV official said.

This links well with UNV’s focus areas, which include increasing youth employability skills and developing national programs that would encourage and allow them to volunteer in their own communities.

But could there be sectors where there’s more demand for volunteers?

Based on VSO’s own assessments, Ponce said the global demand is now more on health and education. In its website, the organization has a list of health-related volunteering opportunities, like clinical health manager, pediatricians, nurses and even midwives, although there are also some opportunities for those working in organizational business management and marketing.

Whether they are expected to send in more “southern” volunteers in the next few years will depend on this demand.

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

  • Ravelo jennylei

    Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.