Perceptions of Volunteering and Their Effect on Sustainable Development and Poverty Alleviation in Mozambique, Nepal and Kenya
Elizabeth Hacker, Alexandrea Picken, and Simon Lewis
Volunteerism is a context-specific concept. While efforts have been made to identify and categorise defining universal characteristics—with the International Labour Office and United Nations Volunteers both highlighting its non-compulsory nature and how it is undertaken for the benefit of others without financial gain1—volunteerism remains a fluid concept, subject to a myriad range of interpretations (International Labour Organization, Geneva, & Department of Statistics, 2011; Leigh et al., 2011). Critically, how these perceptions vary both between and within countries has a fundamental impact on the potential for volunteers and volunteerism as a development intervention to contribute to sustainable development and poverty alleviation.
The need for better understanding of national and local contexts of volunteering has been a recurring theme from the Valuing Volunteering project, a two-year participatory Systemic Action Research investigation supported jointly by VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) and the UK’s Institute of Development Studies 
(IDS). The project has sought to build a better understanding of where, when and how volunteering affects poverty (Burns et al., 2015). Findings presented here from Mozambique, Nepal and Kenya are based upon more than 6 years of fieldwork. They paint an intriguing picture of how perceptions of volunteerism have been shaped by the merging of longstanding traditions of self-help and mutual support with a growing trend for ‘formal’ volunteer interventions that are designed to contribute to a specific development project or goal. This merging has created hybrid forms of volunteering which are seen to simultaneously impact upon volunteer perceptions and motivations, the perceptions and receptiveness to working with volunteers held by those who volunteers seek to help, and the dynamics of the relationships that develop between the two. In addition, the research found that in some contexts the line between civil society and political spheres has become blurred, with volunteering becoming caught up in or perceived as being linked to local political agendas. Although each country has been influenced by its own combination of factors, key recurring themes across all three are the state’s involvement with volunteerism and the role that international development actors have played in directing volunteer efforts as part of a wider development agenda. These are also set against the backdrop of wider societal changes such as increasing inequality, demographic shifts and the rise of individualism at the expense of more communal attitudes.
While volunteers are found to provide vital services, numerous examples are documented where state involvement and the practices of national and international NGOs have created negative perceptions of volunteering; perceptions that have, in essence, distorted volunteerism beyond the universal characteristics (being non-compulsory, for the benefit of others and without pay) that define volunteerism in the eyes of international development organisations. With regard to politics, the case of Mozambique reveals the overt influence of politics as volunteers and volunteering interventions often need to align with the dominant party through highly politicised local governance structures in order to gain funding and permission to operate. The blurred line between political and civil society space thereby directly impacts perceptions of volunteering, which becomes a politicised extension of the state. In Nepal, volunteerism has been directly used as a tool for promoting national development through state-organised volunteering schemes. Volunteers’ close links with local governance institutions, however, has at times entwined volunteers in the complex politics of a conflict and post-conflict society. And in Kenya, initial political attempts to use volunteerism as a means of promoting unity and development in the post-independence era have gradually faded as politics has increasingly exploited ethnic divisions, thereby fuelling distrust between tribal groupings.
The practices of national and international NGOs as well as international volunteer cooperation organisations (IVCOs) are also found to have created confusion around what it means to volunteer. In Nepal, for example, we see how the proliferation of formalised volunteering opportunities with international NGOs and IVCOs, many of which are accompanied by stipends/allowances, has created a divide between formal ‘moneyed’ volunteers, whose altruistic motivations are often questioned, and ‘pure’ volunteers who engage in more traditional forms of ‘self-service’ or ‘social work’. In Mozambique, a complex picture has emerged with better qualified ‘activistas’ operating alongside more self-organised community ‘volunteers’. And in Kenya, the emergence of a ‘stipend culture’—something that has been perpetuated by NGOs—is observed to have distorted notions of volunteerism, undermined the capacity of communities to lead their own development and created community distrust of the motives of volunteers.
In all of the countries, such dynamics and contexts are vital because they influence perceptions and, in turn, the relationships that volunteers build with individuals, communities and organisations to bring about change. As a “people-centred” and “relationship-based” development approach, the research finds that the effectiveness of volunteering is heavily dependent on the factors that affect the construction of meaningful relationships for change (Lough & Matthew, 2013). Crucially, findings also reveal how volunteers are active agents in navigating the varying perceptions of them, utilising various tactics and strategies to overcome challenges and make the most of opportunities and strengths.
The findings presented in the country profiles below focus predominantly on national perceptions of volunteering, particularly in relation to national and local volunteers. Such is the importance and variation of context, that it would be worthwhile conducting the same exercise for other types of volunteers as the Valuing Volunteering research clearly found that perceptions vary according to the type of volunteer (international, national, community, youth, diaspora, etc.). Better understanding of the factors that affect perceptions and how particular types of volunteers may be better suited to overcoming specific challenges is potentially valuable to improving the effectiveness of volunteerism as a development intervention. It is hoped that the evidence presented here goes some way to developing that understanding.