Main Navigation

Debating the point of international volunteering

Is international volunteering an asset to development or just a way to meet our own desire to save the world?

Thursday November 26, 2015

An Australian volunteer tests community disaster preparedness messages with colleagues. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Louise Cooper

A team of expert panellists deconstructed the motives and benefits behind international volunteering, at an engaging discussion hosted by Red Cross last week.

More than 120 development professionals attended the event, held to mark the launch of Red Cross' new research report on international volunteering, and evaluation of our work in Kenya and Uganda.

Tracee Hutchison, journalist, broadcaster and CEO of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, moderated the panel, which included: Marc Purcell, Executive Director of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID); Dr Peter Devereux, Research Fellow at Curtin University; Ashlee Betteridge, Research Officer with the Development Policy Centre at Australian National University; and Dr Chrisanta Muli, Development Effectiveness Manager with Oxfam Australia.

Panellists were thrown a range of questions on four key themes: the purpose of international volunteering, the role of international volunteering in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the 'right' way to run a volunteer program, and how returned volunteers can contribute to the development sector.

Mr Purcell insisted that the cultural understanding fostered through volunteering was a crucial ingredient for addressing global problems.

"The world's problems are of such complexity that no single nation can solve them by themselves because the problems are transboundary: pollution of the planet, the refugee crisis, global terrorism.… I think that volunteering… is going to be very important in building bridges of understanding if we want to tackle the very complex problems that humanity faces and we want to prosper towards the end of the century," he said.

Dr Devereux, who volunteered in Nicaragua several years ago, felt that it was time to stop seeing volunteerism as a purely altruistic act.

"[People think that] if you want to build up a CV or some new skills, that's a really selfish outrageous thing. Actually I think all of us engaged in the aid and development sector … if we're honest, we're getting something out of it. … When we think we're just being altruistic, in my experience what we end up being is really paternalistic."

In tackling the question of whether there is a 'right' way to run a volunteer program, Ms Betteridge spoke about the challenges she experienced while volunteering in Timor-Leste. She highlighted areas in which volunteering programs could improve their in-country management, utilisation of volunteer feedback and assignment development processes. In particular, she spoke of the difficulties that arise for volunteers when their assignments are not developed by or with their host organisations.

Meanwhile Dr Muli, an academic, researcher and community development practitioner, explained why she had gone from a sceptic to a recent convert to the values of volunteering.

"For me the biggest question was, 'Whose agenda was it and who benefits, really?'...I was recently lucky to participate in the AVID evaluation in Kenya and Uganda and for me - for the first time in a long time - I was now hearing the other side of the story, so not just the horror stories of what had gone wrong with the volunteer process but really what was coming out of it for the community members and partner organisations."

In a more critical point Dr Muli spoke about the importance of ensuring volunteer programs promote a shared recognition and understanding of both the host community's culture and the volunteers'.

"It has to be give and take, it cannot just be about my culture or my way - or my agenda - it has to really be about looking at all the partners that are involved. Sometimes the volunteers in the field that I did meet in Kenya and Uganda would feel a bit stuck in the middle of the expectations that were coming from the organisation, their own expectations as individuals and also expectations of the donor."

Director of International Programs at Red Cross, Peter Walton, also spoke about Red Cross' ongoing commitment to international volunteering and our decision to explore new models of volunteering:

"We often talk about volunteering as if volunteers are homogenous…that's clearly not the way the world works. There's all different ways that people can contribute to volunteering and I think we have to make sure that we have mechanisms to accommodate the added value that they offer, and that does mean thinking differently."