Volunteering to make a difference:
skilled volunteering and community needs
Supporting local change makers ensures that the needs of communities are met
One of the major reasons volunteers decide to share their skills and time is the wish to make a difference and give back to the community. Social, economic and environmental impact are some of the most beneficial outcomes of volunteering abroad. The kind of impact volunteers are looking to have is thus often inspired by the Sustainable Development Goals. So it is important to think about how the time and effort volunteers put into their placements are best used to work towards these goals.
The following is my perspective, shaped by studying Economics and Development at university, and working for volunteer organisations across the globe for the past couple of years.
The Academic Side of Things
I studied Development Management at university at master’s level. Well, the course was actually called Development Administration and Planning. And whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the course, I find the name to be too long and slightly pretentious.
Looking at Development through an academic lense opened up by eyes and my mind to a lot of things. One of my major insights was the concept of ‘positionality’. “Positionality?”, you ask. “One of those fancy-schmancy concepts they teach you in class that has nothing to do with on-the-ground work? Don’t bore me with your academic terminology!”
Yes, it is a big word, and yes, it might only be used in academia. But please bear with me, as you will soon find out why ‘positionality’ is important for every volunteer.
How do we know?
The concept of positionality refers to the way knowledge is created. In simple terms, it is asking how ‘we’ – as volunteers and agents of change – have acquired the knowledge, opinions and assumptions we possess. It therefore draws attention to the conditions and factors that lead to our specific situations. Examples include the influence of gender, race, nationality, up-bringing, location, opportunities etc. So it is asking the question “Why do we think and know the way we do?”.
Sounds pretty philosophical, doesn’t it? But it opens up the discussion around what knowledge counts, and how we ‘know’.
Coming from our background, we know certain things. We know that there are a lot of people living in poverty in India. We have seen the slums and the living conditions on TV and in the media. We know that women don’t have the same rights as men. Or do we?
How do we learn about India as a country and its context in Development? Through the media, through the internet, and maybe even through personal accounts. But can we truly understand the cultural nuances, historical heritage and different ways of thinking? Probably not. So who can?
Positionality, Local Change Makers and Community Needs
The answer seems pretty straightforward, once you hear it. Local people are the ones that understand the needs of the communities they live in. They grew up to understand the social, cultural and historical factors that have shaped their society and lead to the way it functions today. Hence they are the ones that can tell you in what respect men and women are (un)equal in India. Most of all, the local community itself is in the best position to understand local community needs.
And of course that adds another layer of complicated relationships. Who in the local community identifies and voices ‘their’ need? Are the people who are in a position to voice their needs truly representative? Who gets to speak up, and who remains quiet? So even if you could go into the local community and ask what their needs are, you need to understand the context and power structures of the answers you get.
What about NGOs and social enterprises? Do they know what the community truly needs? Yes and no. They are definitely in a better position to understand the workings on the ground, and thus the needs of the communities they serve. But often they are set up by people who have observed a need, rather than experienced the need themselves. Only some have experienced it themselves. In the end, local change makers still have to be aware of their positionality, and constantly should ask themselves the question “How do we know?”.
Positionality, Power and Development
This discussion opens up a can of worms, but is incredibly important to think about if you are truly looking to make a difference whilst volunteering abroad.
Thinking about Development and power, positionality offers an interesting insight. International development is often led by donor countries, the ones giving the money. That could be the US, the UK, Canada or a European country. The initiatives are then set up in the receiving country, under the control and management of the donor. As a result, people who have never experienced the issues they are trying to fix are the ones making decisions regarding what should be done, how, with what outcomes, and how success should be measured. How often do you think they are getting it right?
This flow of accountability shows that knowledge and money are tightly bound together. Consequently, the knowledge of people in a position to fund money is worth a lot more than the knowledge of people in a position having to receive money.
Positionality and the flow of power is an issue that continuously keeps plaguing the Development industry. It’s difficult to make people see their own positionality, let alone act on it. But when it comes to volunteering, we can avoid repeating this same mistake.
Responsible volunteering – volunteering with the highest impact – acknowledges positionality. It avoids portraying the volunteer as the hero and saviour, coming to rescue people from their misery. Instead, the volunteer is seen as a learner, as someone who collaborates with local change makers and is open to knowledge and innovation, so that solutions to local problems can be crafted in a way that fits the local context.
That is also why skill based volunteering is the best way to give back and make an impact. When working cross-culturally and immersing yourself into the local organisation and community, you are putting yourself in a position where you are able – with open eyes and an open mind – to observe the cultural nuances, historical heritage, and different ways of thinking that otherwise would remain hidden.
By bringing together the volunteer’s professional/thematic knowledge and expertise and the local knowledge and experience of the partner organisation, skill based volunteering is creating a situation where all types of knowledge are valued as equal.
The role of donor and receiver are thus changed. Volunteers are both donors and receivers: they donate their time and skills, and receive new skills and insights in return. Similarly, the local partner becomes a donor and receiver: they donate their effort and local knowledge, and receive the shared skills in return.
Responsible volunteering is the best way to ensure that your skills are used where they are needed. It ensures that local communities are supported in the best way possible, and local change makers are provided with the tools and skills to keep running this support long term.
If yo’ve made it this far, you must be just as passionate about responsible volunteering as we are. You might as well contact us today and start planning your next skilled volunteering placements.