by Christopher Millora
The tendency to frame ‘poor’ and ‘vulnerable’ populations as subjects and recipients of development programmes continues to persist today. In international volunteering, so-called ‘global south’ nations seems to be often framed as ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘hosts’ of services delivered by volunteers from the so-called ‘global north’ nations. There is also the widely known “dominant status model” which suggests that those with higher socio-economic status tend to volunteer more as they have a surplus in money, time and expertise. While these narratives do not argue that volunteering is only the domain of the rich, their persistence seems to eclipse the valuable role of volunteering and helping activities by ‘vulnerable’ populations, for instance, within the global south.
In my local development work and ethnographic research in the Philippines, I experienced how grassroots initiatives and movements often blossom in the face of vulnerability. When super-typhoon Haiyan hit in 2013, you hear stories like that of prisoners who volunteered to skip meals to provide relief goods to affected citizens. In highly affected areas, even individuals who, themselves, have been affected by the calamity volunteer to assist other typhoon ‘victims’. I also found in my research with a displaced rural community in the Philippines that the precarity of their circumstance motivates many of the volunteering and helping practices among the members. It seems that the motivations to respond are irrespective of one’s socioeconomic status.
Still, there is also valuable volunteer work in the everyday. A research on volunteer work in Southern Africa described volunteering in the region as ‘the poor helping their fellow poor’ – the volunteers come from the same community they are ‘serving’ and therefore experience similar contextual issues their volunteer work is trying to address. The lived and shared experiences of everyday challenges between the volunteers, and their ‘beneficiaries’ have the potential to build, if not strengthen, community solidarity and, in many ways, resilience. This practice seems to have parallels with the Filipino concept of bayanihan – a system of mutual aid, help and concern among communities in the pursuit of a common goal otherwise difficult to achieve with kanya-kanyang kayod (each one fending for himself). As such, bayanihan seems to be one of the bases of various volunteering practices within Filipino communities.
Increasingly, there has been a recognition – both in academic research and in development practice – of the values of working with local volunteers. This year’s State of the Worlds Volunteerism Report recognises the local volunteerism as a ‘fundamental resilience strategy’ and calls for effective collaboration between local volunteers and external actors that work with them. According to a two-year study on the role of volunteering in sustainable development (cases from Kenya, Mozambique, Nepal and the Philippines), volunteers may serve as brokers and intermediaries between ‘external’ and ‘internal’ knowledge that may encourage new forms of collaboration. These partnerships make projects more sustainable, participative and locally-relevant. However, community-based volunteers are not only foot-soldiers in development work but are also founders, leaders and stakeholders in various community initiatives. For instance, self-help groups of single mothers and women living with HIV/AIDS in Korogocho, Kenya were founded and maintained by local volunteers operating based on mutual aid and reciprocity.
While our discussion so far generally paints an optimistic picture, there exist issues and challenges that need particular attention especially from development workers, institutions and governments. It is often the ‘poor’ and ‘vulnerable’ populations that are affected most by gaps in public services. When the arms of the government and institutions are too short, communities – through volunteerism – organise themselves to respond to each other’s needs. Over-reliance on these helping behaviours – without considering the very real vulnerabilities that these groups face – may lead to exploitation of the energies of the poorest in a given society. In this way, volunteering may contribute to the process of increasing responsibilisation – where citizens are expected not only to be active (as in ‘active citizens’) but responsible for (as in ‘responsible citizens’) their own service provisions. As a Peruvian woman volunteer expressed, “we have a lot of goodwill, but we also need to eat…”
Related here are issues of remuneration and allowances: in environments where income is scarce, and employment is limited, a voluntary job with little remuneration is considered by many as better than no job at all. Therefore, the allowances received from volunteering become necessary for survival. These points are important for institutions and governments to reflect upon particularly whether and how engagement in voluntary service increases and/or challenges the vulnerabilities of these groups.
Then, there is the gender dimension of volunteering. Research on ‘poor’ women health volunteers in Peru and India described the tendency of organisations to recruit women for unpaid work because they are considered to be more self-sacrificing, that their income is only supplementary to the male breadwinner and that their work is an extension of their maternal roles.
Despite the challenges, these narratives support what Arthur Gillette, former Secretary General of the Coordinating Committee for International Voluntary Service, has observed over a decade ago: “excluded people are increasingly forging their own futures and those of their societies at large. In this way, the very people who have been excluded are breaking new ground in voluntary service”. In other words, volunteering by the ‘vulnerable’ – under certain circumstances – continues to be a pathway of challenging stereotypes of exclusion and marginalisation within these populations. Through volunteer work, they become active participants and leaders – not only beneficiaries – of local development activities and initiatives that respond to issues that concern them.
Note: I place inverted commas for words such as “vulnerable” or “poor” to connote that these terms – although sometimes are attributed with generalised meanings – are constructed and may mean differently for different people and in different contexts.
Christopher Millora is a Filipino PhD fellow at the UNESCO Chair in Adult Literacy and Learning for Social Transformation based at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia. His research is an ethnographic exploration of the learning dimension of volunteer work by ‘vulnerable’ youths and adults in the Philippines. You may contact him on Twitter (@chrismillora) or via firstname.lastname@example.org.