Cliff Allum: “It must be our task to ensure international volunteering remain relevant in building a better world for everyone”

Dr Cliff Allum, member of the International Forum for Volunteering in Development Research Group of the University of Birmingham

Keynote Speech for the CCIVS Online Dialogues, 14 December 2020

What future for International Volunteering?

Thank you for inviting me to make a shot keynote introductory presentation on a subject that is very close to my heart and I am sure to yours. I have always been struck by the passion people bring to international volunteering and in the current context of the challenges, we face locally and globally both now and in the future that passion is a very precious and valuable asset.

I speak to you today as a writer, researcher, and an academic in the area of volunteering for development. But for many years I worked in the sector and had a long association with Skillshare Africa and Skillshare International, which, of course, had historic links with IVS. So, in talking about the future of international volunteering I bring that experience of looking at this from different positions.

I want to start with the big question that you will look at during the conference –does international volunteering have a future and if so what does it look like? This is not a new question. Indeed the relevance and appropriateness of international volunteering has been called into question looking at historical documents for decades. Yet at the same time, international volunteering has continued to function and often to flourish. The models from short-term workcamps to long-term volunteer development workers travelling from the Global North to the Global South would be easily recognisable to those involved, say, fifty years ago. Picking up one of the conference themes, IV models have been remarkably resilient.

Such models, recognising the lived experience of international volunteers and their motivations, have emphasised the two-way reciprocity of that experience, whether framed within an organisational or community context. On one hand, international volunteers bring their skills, experience, know-how and perspectives from their environment but the process of engagement means it is a learning journey for all concerned, generating an improved personal and collective understanding of each other’s situation and the interconnectedness of people and communities across the planet.

As communities change, the content of the reciprocity has also changed. Mass programmes focused on providing teachers and health care workers as part of technical assistance have given way to more selective and specific interventions, arguably with greater agency from the Global South. Terms such as capacity building as use widely with a broad meaning across international volunteer programmes. While challenges to direct provision have come up against ethical grounds, such the engagement with orphanages.

Within the system of volunteering what pressures have generated an anxiety about the future? When I took up my role as Director of Skillshare Africa nearly thirty years ago, I was immediately struck by two things: that the average age of volunteers had grown and heading towards 40; and concern about the lack of volunteers applying to volunteer. This suggested an existential issue and it was widespread across different countries. Volunteer sending organisations were transforming themselves in places like the Netherlands into consultancies or in Norway into partnership exchange models. The relevance both to partners in the Global South and to volunteers in the Global North was under question and seriously challenging.

Roll forward until the present day. The discussions sometimes sound quite similar. Recruiting volunteers is still an issue in different countries, especially ones who want to commit to a long-term assignment. But relevance has moved on. One feature of the SDG process was to enable a much higher profile for volunteering for development, including the rationale of volunteering as a direct contributor to the SDGs and as an important mechanism for their delivery.

But volunteering for development is not synonymous with international volunteering. One of the break out sessions will discuss the relationship between local and international volunteering and while the SDGs have provided a higher profile for volunteering generally, this has been especially important for the growth of national volunteering and the development of volunteer infrastructure in the Global South. This connection between international and national/local volunteers has always been there, but not necessarily under the umbrella of an international volunteering organisation. This is now changing. A few years ago I presented a paper on connecting international and national volunteering at the IVCO conference and it really didn’t make much impression. Now, IVCOs are talking about variations in volunteer models –“hybridity” –which combines different volunteer approaches, including international and national volunteers. Even before Covid-19, VSO had pretty much as many national volunteers from the Global South on their long-term programme as IVS. And, of course, ICS as a youth programme matches UK youth with local youth volunteers drawn from the country where the programme operates. And with the impact of Covid-19 and the risk of international volunteers being repatriated as a result, both IVCOs and donors are looking more closely at the role of Community Volunteers in future programmes.

While on the subject of youth, it is worth noting that one of the policy shifts of the C21 in certain European countries –Germany and the UK especially –has been the establishment of international youth programmes on scale. While some will question the supply driven nature of such programmes and the ethics of using the Global South as a learning ground for the youth of the Global North, it indicates a significant level of desire on the part of young people to volunteer in person.

One discussion I notice about young people (not necessarily by them) and volunteering is how this generation embraces digital technology and the inevitable prophecies about online volunteering being the future. UNV are looking at this ‘new world’ in some depth and considering how artificial intelligence might provide the volunteers of the future. Covid-19 has given a big push for online volunteering as IVCOs struggle to know what to do with repatriated volunteers and isolated partner organisations. I am part of a team that has been looking at the impact of Covid-19 on international volunteering and our interim results, presented at IVCO 2020, suggested that while online volunteering is likely to become part of future ways of working, there is no expectation it will replace face to face volunteering. The moment when IVCOs saw a huge existential crisis due to Covid-19 appears to be passing and with it online volunteering as a replacement (rather than addition) to international volunteering.

It must be our task as internationalists to ensure the role and activities of international volunteering remain relevant in building a better world for everyone

Clif Allum

However, one existential challenge that is not going away is climate change and here I want to recognise the leadership CCIVS has shown in this area. In my recent work on climate change and volunteering, it became clear that there is a tendency for volunteering organisations to remain in the relative comfort zone of adapting to the effects of climate change, doing great work alongside potentially and actually affected communities to respond to the challenges and build resilience. But when it comes to working on the causes of climate change and leveraging the “international” in volunteering to challenge those who are generating the activities that are causing climate change, we are found wanting. Indeed, social movements have emerged that IVCOs have needed to try to catch up with. Those movements have passion, commitment, solidarity –all words that come to mind when I think of the international volunteering tradition. And of course, IVCOs will need to address head on another ethical issue –flying volunteers around the world in an era of reducing green house gases.

We live in a world where market-based opportunities are seen as central, where volunteers can buy an experience to meet the individual aspirations, which sits in apparent contrast to the values of solidarity or faith as drivers of our collective behaviour. In an era when we have seen attacks on internationalism, a retrenchment in different parts of the globe into a mythology of what was once termed “splendid isolation”, it must be our task as internationalists to ensure the role and activities of international volunteering remain relevant in building a better world for everyone.

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