How Does Volunteering Affect Development?

The nonprofit sector plays a role in economic and political life, and governments and economic actors often try to manage this relationship. This section first discusses the role of volunteering in economic development, both as an independent cause and as something to be mobilized by development nonprofits. It then discusses how governments in developing countries have a complex relationship with the nonprofit sector and volunteers.

The literature on the role of volunteers in development is extensive. The United Nations State of the World’s Volunteering Report (Leigh et al., 2011) reviews this literature, demonstrating how volunteering can play a role in economic development, social inclusion, conflict management, and disaster relief and reconstruction. The 2015 State of the World’s Volunteering Report (Wallace et al., 2015) provides case studies of how volunteers contribute to the governance of nonprofits and government bodies at the local and national level, and to international advocacy efforts.

One line of research on volunteering in the developing world connects volunteering with community. Here several studies highlight community-oriented initiatives and health-related volunteering (Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Alemayehu, Bosma, Hanna Witten, & Teklehaimanot, 1996; Jenkins, 2011; Nyende, 2014; Okanurak & Ruebush, 1996) . Jenkins (2011) views volunteering in this context as gendered, finding that primarily women fill such roles in urban communities. Adhanom Ghebreyesus et al. (1996) found that women and girls were less likely to receive health services themselves due to household or caring responsibilities. Community- based health programs, active community participation, and long-term commitments from national organizations, however, have proven effective in combating health- related concerns in developing countries (Adhanom Ghebreyesus et al., 1996; Okanurak & Ruebush, 1996). Similarly, safety concerns also present a significant threat in underdeveloped countries and Bulbulia and Van Niekerk (2012) find that developing a volunteer identity within communities can positively influence the implementation of sustainable volunteer programs in these neighborhoods.

Governments of developing countries have an ambivalent relationship with the nonprofit sector, as they benefit from the expertise and assistance that nonprofits bring to providing services to the people. However, a strong nonprofit sector can pose a threat to nondemocratic states, as nonprofits create a space for independent citizen participation, compete with the government in the provision of services, and sometimes advocate directly for political rights and policies (Heurlin, 2010). A few developing countries have adopted an exclusionary strategy toward nonprofits, banning them entirely or severely restricting their operations. Most developing country governments have tried to control the nonprofit sector through a corporatist strategy, recognizing and supporting pro-government nonprofits and discouraging but not banning independent or antigovernment nonprofits. Some countries, China and Vietnam being two notable examples, have created a government-controlled nonprofit sector, in which the organizations are technically and legally independent from government but are actually controlled by the ruling Communist party (Heurlin, 2010).

Just as government tries to manage its relationships with nonprofits, nonprofit organizations try to manage their relationships with government. For many volunteer organizations in developing countries, seeking and developing political capital is essential for survival (Xu, 2012; Xu & Ngai, 2009). More established institutions retain the political capital to leverage volunteer participation through legitimacy while simultaneously gaining government trust (Xu & Ngai, 2009). Recognizing the utility of volunteerism in achieving state and social goals, many governments promote volunteering, particularly among youth. This relationship, however, is reciprocal and important to consider as governments seek to promote and secure increased volunteering among citizens. Governments have particularly targeted youth volunteers and the youth are eager to respond (Fleischer, 2011; Hustinx, Handy, & Cnaan, 2012; McBride et al., 2011; Xu, 2012).

At the seventieth session of the UN General Assembly, the Secretary General reported to Member States the progress on volunteerism since 2012 and presented a proposed Plan of Action for 2016-2030. This plan aims to integrate volunteering in peace and development policies on programs through a strategic and collective long-term approach that matches the period of the sustainable development goals (SDG) implementation. It establishes a frame where civil society, the UN, and other stakeholders can support and leverage the potential of volunteerism worldwide. This plan has been acknowledged through the UN resolution “Integrating volunteering into peace and development: the plan of action for the next decade and beyond” (2015). The new SDGs acknowledge the importance of volunteering worldwide and stress the contribution of volunteering to development. The United Nations Volunteers (UNV) and other stakeholders have formed a Post-2015 Volunteering Working Group that include groups such as the International Forum for Volunteering in Development, the most significant global network of International Volunteer Cooperation Organisations. The post-2015 Volunteering Working Group promotes the value of volunteering for development through policy engagement, mutual learning, and sharing best practices. This working group has positioned itself with the High-level Political Forum, the UN body that follows up and reviews the implementation of the sustainable development commitments and the post-2015 development agenda to achieve the SDGs. The High-Level Political Form plans to document the contribution of volunteerism to achieving the SDGs and use this information to secure a stronger partnership role for volunteer groups in the SDG implementation process (Haddock & Devereux, 2015).

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