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Home arrow Sociology arrow Perspectives on Volunteering: Voices from the South


In Nepal, the volunteering landscape has dramatically changed in the last 30 years. The rapid influx of NGO funding in the 1990s and the opportunities to volunteer with NGO-led development projects greatly changed the nature of volunteer work. It has become more secular, technical, professional and developmental (Aditya, 2002). As the nature of volunteering has changed, so too have the perceptions and meanings associated with it. Neupane (2002) argues that this shift has resulted in volunteering becoming associated less so with sociocultural/ethnic group-based activities (e.g. to sustainably manage community resources) and associated more so with the Western idea of volunteering as a service offered to others (Neupane, 2002). In addition, since the late 1980s, both full-time and part-time state-led local volunteer opportunities have expanded. As a result, volunteering has become entwined with the complicated politics of a society in conflict and conflict transition. This section looks in detail at (i) how and why the volunteer landscape has changed, (ii) how this has affected the perceptions of national volunteers and volunteering and (iii) explores how these perceptions have the potential to influence how effectively volunteers can perform at the local level.

Nepal’s changing volunteering landscape: The practice of volunteerism (swaym- saybak‘self-service’) is deeply rooted in Nepalese society (Bhattachan, 2002). Traditional volunteering, where individuals undertake collective action to achieve common goals, has been performed in Nepal for centuries (Neupane, 2002). However, formal volunteering is a relatively new phenomenon in Nepal dating from the 1990s when the end of absolute monarchy in 1991 brought about a sudden influx of funding from the international community, eager to endorse the achievement of constitutional democracy (Aditya, 2002). This in turn led to the rapid growth of NGOs (from 372 to almost 10,000 between 1990 and 1999), and the expansion of formal volunteering opportunities, with NGOs needing volunteers to implement projects at the grass-roots level (Aditya, 2002).

At the same time, changes in the volunteering landscape were also taking place as a result of a shift in power from the central to local government level, reflecting global decentralisation trends that have taken place in the last 20 years or so (Joshi & Schultze-Kraft, 2014), and the establishment of formal government volunteer schemes and programmes. In 1999, the Local Self Governance Act created new participatory spaces where local volunteers could play a greater role in the functions of local government bodies. For example, school management committees (SMCs) involving parent, teacher and other local representatives were established to mobilise resources, and plan and monitor the budget for each government school (Asia Foundation, 2012).

In addition to greater involvement of volunteers in local governance processes, government-organised volunteerism expanded in the area of service delivery. In the late 1980s, the Female Community Health Volunteer (FCHV) Programme was established, providing community-based maternal- and child-health services in all communities in Nepal (Glenton et al., 2010). Volunteers also became a part of the government’s development strategy, with a government-led volunteer service established in 1999 with the objective of assisting in the achievement of the poverty reduction goals outlined in the Government of Nepal’s Tenth Five Year Plan. Having started with 220 volunteers in 20 districts, the coverage of this scheme has expanded to cover almost all districts of the country, with approximately 600 volunteers mobilised annually for at least a one-year term of service in the health, agricultural development, livestock services and engineering sectors. These volunteers are ‘technical’ volunteers, holding the relevant qualifications for the post recruited for (as their permanent staff equivalents working in the public sector would). The vast majority of volunteers are currently mobilised in the health sector, occupying roles as Health Assistants and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives. They receive a monthly stipend (of approximately $80-100 per month) to cover basic living expenses. It is important to note the role of the Maoist Insurgency (1996-2006) in the formation of this scheme. During the insurgency, many public servants were targeted by the insurgents and forced to withdraw from remote posts. Mobilising volunteers and deploying them in these remote posts provided a short-term solution to a human resource gap in service delivery.

Changes in the perceptions of volunteering: The perception of volunteering became bound up with wider perceptions of the NGO and INGO sector and the growing culture of dependency that it is often associated with. Formal volunteering opportunities have been described as causing the culture of ‘self-service’ to be replaced by dependency (Neupane, 2002) . Aspects of formal volunteering—for example the opportunities it can provide to access monetary compensation and to gain work experience—have led to a widely held perception that national volunteers are no longer motivated by community obligations (i.e. the spirit of ‘self-service’). The terminology often used to describe national volunteers, particularly those volunteering with NGOs, is as follows: those engaged in formal volunteering are often described as ‘moneyed’ volunteers, whereas individuals engaged in traditional activities or ‘social work’, such as communal road building, are referred to as ‘pure’ volunteers. The monetary gains or employment opportunities that can result from engaging in organised voluntary activity leads to the perception that volunteers may have an alternative agenda and are not primarily motivated by altruistic values. In addition, because of the high levels of youth unemployment in Nepal, and the number of relatively young national volunteers associated with formal volunteering, volunteering can be associated with being unemployed and inexperienced.

Valuing Volunteering Nepal found that many locally based volunteers engaged in formal (i.e. NGO organised) volunteering activities had experienced negative attitudes from community members. One college student who facilitates a women’s awareness group, describes how she has been affected by negative perceptions of volunteering:

Most of the community feel a negative sense of NGOs and INGOs. They think they have a lot of money, so members I work with ask for money. It makes me very frustrated. People have the wrong sense. Because some NGOs do that kind of thing, waste the money, their sense is very negative...people think that I am corrupted. It’s very hard to deal with... it is difficult for people to trust what volunteers do.

Female, NGO Volunteer

In addition, the democratic deficit in local politics and resulting service delivery inefficiencies has affected perceptions of volunteering in Nepal. A major issue is the existence of a culture of political collusion, corruption and patronage politics at the local level (Asia Foundation, 2012) . This is partly the result of the conflict and post-conflict political instability, whereby local elected bodies were dissolved in 2002 during the Maoist Insurgency and have yet to be reinstated. With no formal electoral processes and no formal opposition, collusive tendencies have become rife and local bodies involving volunteers, such as SMCs, have become the proxy forums for the contestation of local politics (Asia Foundation, 2012). Underlying this are historical issues such as exclusionary tendencies based on ethnic and caste identity that continue to affect different groups’ power and influence in these forums.

Local-level democracy and state efficiency have been seriously affected by the conflict and the continued political instability, and perceptions of local governance and service delivery institutions are generally very poor in Nepal as a result. These perceptions unsurprisingly influence how volunteers, who are strongly linked with these local bodies, are perceived in the community. Valuing Volunteering Nepal found that even volunteers involved in the less politically sensitive area of service delivery felt that they were affected by negative perceptions, with some suspected of benefitting from nepotism and being involved in corrupt practices. For example, despite much positive publicity of FCHVs because of their contribution to helping Nepal achieve the Millennium Development Goal on infant mortality, these volunteers often reported that they had experienced a negative reaction initially from the community, with some saying that it had taken several years before community members believed they were not corrupting money from the government.

Similarly, the government-led volunteer scheme is also affected by general perceptions of governance institutions and by the circumstances of its development during the Maoist Insurgency, at a time of great instability. For example, when it was established during the insurgency, recruitment processes were simple and processes to monitor volunteer activity inadequate for the large number of volunteers deployed, which resulted in the scheme becoming associated with absenteeism and underperformance (Pokharel, 2012). Despite major changes to recruitment and organisational processes in recent years, Valuing Volunteering Nepal found that the volunteers can still be affected by negative perceptions about volunteering that stem from the scheme’s legacy and attributes associated with local politics (e.g. nepotistic tendencies) and volunteering more widely. The section below explores how these perceptions influence volunteers mobilised by the government-led volunteer scheme, and the strategies they deploy to negotiate this.

How perceptions influence volunteer impact: Valuing Volunteering Nepal explored how volunteers involved in the government-led scheme’s impact was affected by the perceptions of volunteering that staff members and the community held. Understanding what affects the quality of the interaction between permanent staff and volunteers is complex and dependent on a range of factors (e.g. the volunteer’s ascribed role, their professional skill, individual characteristics and personal resources), but perceptions of volunteering were also found to affect the quality of this interaction.

Some volunteers were able to use their volunteer identity, and the perception of volunteering to their advantage when working alongside permanent staff members. For some, attributes of being a volunteer—a slight distance from the work-based hierarchy, the relatively short-term nature of the role, its association with altruism— put them in a position where they could improve permanent staff practices by modelling new types of behaviour or challenging poor practices. For example, a number of volunteers and permanent staff members reported an increase in the timeliness and attendance of paid staff members because the volunteers were themselves timely and had good attendance, despite receiving far less compensation for their efforts. Volunteers also reported appealing directly to permanent staff, highlighting their position as volunteers, their altruism and their dedication compared with staff who were more senior but less motivated.

However, for others, volunteer identity was not so positively interpreted by the permanent staff they worked alongside and they found integrating with staff to be a challenge. Aspects of being a volunteer—its relatively low pay (stipend) and temporary nature—left some volunteers at the bottom of the hierarchy in the workplace. Their volunteer identity could work against them, with colleagues seeing them as ‘just a volunteer’ and therefore giving them little respect. This was also related to the fact that volunteering was associated with being unemployed and unable to get a ‘real job’.

Such perceptions were sometimes attributed to a lack of understanding from colleagues about volunteering, which led to confusion about the volunteers’ roles within a normally rigid, work-based hierarchy. The lack of status afforded to volunteers made permanent staff sometimes unwilling to take on information from them (even though the volunteers may have been more recently trained and have more up-to-date skills), and the perception of volunteering as being short-term prevented some permanent staff sharing skills or providing support to volunteers. Volunteers often cited a lack of support and guidance as being detrimental to their ability to affect change, as one volunteer describes:

They don’t listen to us, they don’t give us advice. Not all—some government workers they

think, ‘volunteers, what do they do? They don’t do anything’.

NDVS volunteer

Service-users’ perceptions of volunteers were also mixed. Some volunteers felt that having a separate identity from permanent staff, who are often perceived negatively by community members due to a widespread culture of absenteeism in the government service delivery sector (Harris, Wales, Jones, Rana, & Chitrakar, 2013), could be beneficial, enabling them to gain the trust of service users more easily. But negative stereotypes which associate national volunteering with low employability and amateurism also affected how volunteers worked with service users, particularly volunteers involved in delivering emergency care. Hospital-based volunteers described how patients would refuse to be seen by volunteers because their skills were not trusted, preferring to be seen by a permanent staff member instead (even though their qualifications were equivalent).

It is interesting to note the ways that volunteers negotiated their volunteer identity and the sometimes negative stereotypes associated with it. While some volunteers emphasised their difference to permanent staff, for example highlighting their altruistic values in order to encourage improved professional practices, in other instances, volunteers felt that playing down their volunteer identities (e.g. by introducing themselves by their job title rather than as a volunteer) enabled them to integrate more closely with permanent staff. This could bring real benefits for volunteers who faced negative reactions from community members distrustful of their capabilities: being embraced by permanent staff and therefore perceived to be part of the existing team allowed for such negative reactions to be mitigated. As one volunteer explained, a more collegial approach brought real advantages. " When people (service users) see us as the same as other staff there is no problem. But if people see us as volunteers (separate) then it is a problem” (NDVS volunteer).

The experiences of these volunteers highlight a number of issues and contradictions that can affect the impact of national volunteers in Nepal. Volunteers are influenced by the culture of local politics and governance, and their close links with these local bodies means that they can be affected by the generally poor perceptions of these institutions. At the same time, there are examples of volunteers using their volunteer identity to distance themselves from these negative associations, and build trust with service users. This can be an effective strategy for gaining the confidence of those usually suspicious of government services. However, there are disadvantages of highlighting this distinctive volunteer identity: its association with being inexperienced, unqualified and opportunistic has the potential to demotivate volunteers, underutilise their skills and resource and alienate them from those they are aiming to benefit.

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