Research in Mozambique, Kenya and Nepal shows how perceptions of volunteering at the local and national levels are entwined with the specific economic, historical, political and development contexts in which the volunteering takes place. Perceptions of volunteering have transformed as volunteering itself has rapidly changed in the past half century. Perceptions not only reflect this change, but are also shaped more broadly by attitudes towards economic and political development. For example, views of the negative side effects of urbanisation and industrialisation and its perceived erosion of community cohesion have shaped attitudes towards volunteerism, while at the same time, volunteerism has become more formalised and organised because of these trends.

Evidence from the three countries shows how two trends—the state’s increasing involvement with volunteering and the role of national and international development actors in promoting volunteering as a development intervention— have dramatically changed traditional notions of volunteerism in each country, and to an extent, have resulted in it being less strongly associated with the universal characteristics (being non-compulsory, for the benefit of others and without pay) that are used by international development organisations to define volunteerism.

It is important to remember the positive role that INGOs, NGOs and governments have often played in creating new opportunities for volunteering and the positive influence that this can have on service delivery and good governance. For example, stipends have made it possible for volunteers from the poorest backgrounds to be part of their own communities’ development without putting their own livelihoods at risk and there are many examples where the growth of spaces at local level for volunteers to engage in participatory governance has led to more accountability among institutions and improved service delivery.

However, this research also draws attention to some of the impacts of increased state and INGO/NGO involvement. While volunteering has been used by governments as a tool to unite populations, improve democratic processes and extend the reach of services, volunteers have been impacted by and associated with negative aspects of politics and political culture. Political control, cultures of corruption and patronage politics have influenced who is able to volunteer and what they are able to do. In addition, volunteers’ proximity to governance bodies and institutions means that volunteers can be associated with the same negative perceptions that beset these formal structures.

The research highlights the impact that these perceptions have on volunteers as they undertake their voluntary work. Volunteers have to negotiate a number of tensions and dilemmas that different responses to their volunteer identity expose. For example, volunteers may need to align themselves with local governance actors in order to gain access to resources and permission to undertake volunteer activities, but at the same time have to be seen as politically neutral, to gain trust from community members. Volunteers are using a number of strategies to balance these different demands, and negotiate the ways that they are perceived by the different actors they work alongside. For example, there is evidence that investing time in building trusting relationships with community members can mitigate the effects of volunteers being associated with local politics or with unemployment. Volunteers may also choose to play down their volunteer identity with some actors, while drawing attention to their volunteer status when this is to their advantage. This is often left to the individual volunteer to navigate. There are questions for volunteer organisations about how these perceptions and their implications can be better understood, and what strategies work best in tackling the negative associations with volunteerism that affect how volunteers can undertake their activities. This is important, given the potential for these perceptions to impact on volunteers’ ability to alleviate poverty and bring about sustainable development.

The Valuing Volunteering research also highlights how perceptions can affect the effectiveness and sustainability of volunteering as a development intervention more broadly. For example, how perceptions influence who volunteers, and what their motivations are. Findings that show that volunteering is associated with low-paid work are worrying, particularly because this may undermine individual volunteers’ motivation to volunteer for altruistic reasons and limit local community’s ability to lead their own development unless they have access to financial resources. Volunteer organisations need to look more broadly at how different types of volunteering affect each other, and develop strategies that ensure the specific value of volunteering, as opposed to paid work, is understood and recognised.

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