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

IV Conclusion


Christopher J. Einolf and Jacqueline Butcher

This book provided an extensive examination of an under researched phenomenon, volunteering in the countries of the global South. While the chapters varied widely in their geographical and conceptual scope, certain common themes connect them. The chapter authors struggled with defining and measuring volunteering and analyzed how volunteering in the global South was affected by the more powerful global North. They discussed the use of volunteers in development and the relationship between volunteers and the state. This conclusion summarizes their arguments in each of these four thematic areas and concludes with a discussion of promising areas for future research.

Defining and Measuring Volunteering

In the introduction to this book, we considered the definition of volunteering at length and adopted two standard definitions that we wanted all of the authors to use. This attempt did not succeed, as volunteering varies too much from country to country for any one standard definition to fit. The different conceptions of the nature of volunteering make the measurement of volunteering difficult and comparisons across nations problematic.

The two commonly accepted definitions of volunteering used in this book are that of the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) and that of the International Labour

C.J. Einolf (*)

School of Public Service, DePaul University, Chicago, IL, USA e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

J. Butcher

Centro de Investigation y Estudios sobre Sociedad Civil, A.C. CIESC, Tecnologico de Monterrey, Mexico City Campus, Mexico e-mail: This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

J. Butcher, C.J. Einolf (eds.), Perspectives on Volunteering, Nonprofit and Civil Society Studies, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39899-0_14

Organization (ILO). The UNV (2001) defines volunteering as an activity undertaken voluntarily, “not primarily for financial reward,” and mainly “to benefit someone other than the volunteer.” The ILO (2010) defines volunteering similarly as “unpaid non-compulsory work: that is, time individuals give without pay to activities performed either through an organization or directly for others outside their own household or related family members.” The only difference between the two definitions is that the ILO defines volunteering more narrowly as “work,” not just an “activity,” and as benefiting “others outside their own household,” rather than just any person other than the volunteer.

The UNV and ILO definitions of volunteering are broad and meant to be inclusive, but volunteering is such a multifaceted concept that the definition of volunteering varies across countries and contexts. Many authors grappled with these issues, particularly the use of other terms to describe certain types of volunteering and the issue of remuneration. Roitter argues that Latin Americans have other names for many types of volunteering—expressions of reciprocity, being a good neighbor, and political activism—that cause them to resist including these activities in answers to survey questions about volunteering.

The issue of whether volunteering can be paid is more contested in the global South. Both the ILO and UNV definitions allow for small stipends, but many forms of volunteering in the global South are classified as volunteering despite the presence of payment that goes beyond a token level. Such volunteer work includes that of Northern volunteers who volunteer in the South and receive stipends from governments and nonprofits. Unlike in developed countries, in developing countries volunteers are more likely to come from the poorer classes, and stipends become an important motivation and even a necessity for survival. As relatively wealthy Northern volunteers sometimes receive stipends while volunteering in a poor country, the generally poorer Southern volunteers can hardly be blamed for wanting a stipend. Stipends make recruitment easier and assure volunteers’ financial viability, but stipends cause new problems of their own. While Patel (2009; cited in Delany and Perold) argues that objections to paying stipends reflect the views of volunteering in the global North and ignore the realities of life in the global South, the scholars and people cited in this book indicate that citizens of the global South themselves criticize stipends. A recent report of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Hazeldine & Baillie Smith, 2015) indicates that residents of the global South have widely varying views on the desirability of stipends, and the report itself does not make any one recommendation for whether volunteers should receive stipends, calling instead for a balanced approach that will vary according to local context.

Critics of stipends object both to stipends that are two low and stipends that are too high. Hacker and colleagues argue that low stipends devalue volunteers and create a perception that they are poor and unskilled and are volunteering only because they could not get a real job. These perceptions stigmatize volunteers and undermine community members’ trust in them. More often, however, stipends are criticized for being too large. Hacker and colleagues talk of a “stipend culture” in Kenya, where volunteers have come to expect stipends and are unwilling to volunteer without one. Bigger NGOs offer larger stipends, “creating a hierarchy of volunteering opportunities.” The stipend culture also leads community members to view volunteers as paid employees and undermines their sense of trust in the volunteers’ motives.

Problems with the definition of volunteering create problems with measurement as well. As Salamon and colleagues point out, nonresponse and social desirability bias may cause surveys to overestimate volunteer participation, while failure to recall volunteering may cause surveys to underestimate volunteering. This failure to recall may be stronger in the global South, where volunteering is a less familiar concept. “Volunteering” is often a foreign word, and survey respondents may perform actions that meet the definition of volunteering but classify them into some more familiar indigenous category (Roitter). Even when surveys define volunteering broadly and clearly without the use of the word “volunteering,” as is recommended by the ILO manual, respondents’ placement of helping activities into other categories may cause them to underestimate their volunteering.

Few nationally representative surveys exist that measure volunteering in countries of the global South, but those that do generally show volunteering rates to be lower there. Some authors argue that the way developed countries define volunteering excludes many helping activities that are more common in less developed countries, creating the false impression that people in developed countries are more generous. Roitter presents statistics from one developed country, the United Kingdom, in which people can spontaneously come up with examples of informal volunteering when asked to do so during a survey. These examples include giving advice, taking people to appointments, and looking after a neighbor’s house and pets when they go away. In Latin America, Roitter asserts, few people would see such actions as a type of volunteering. Thus, not only are survey responses biased, they are biased consistently in one direction, with Latin Americans less likely than Europeans to count many types of informal voluntary work as volunteering. If citizens in other regions of the world also undercount informal volunteering for similar reasons, measurement error may account for part or all of the supposed difference between developed and less developed countries’ rates of volunteering.

There is no single clear solution to the problem of definition and measurement. Several authors (Salamon et al.; Roitter) call for the use of the ILO definition of volunteering and placing questions about volunteering on a household or labor force survey administered by the government. This would have the advantage of standardization and a potential for wide comparability, but framing volunteering within the context of a labor force study might lead respondents to think of volunteering almost exclusively as unpaid formal labor. Roitter finds this effect at work in his estimate of volunteering in Buenos Aires, in which a labor force survey found that only 5.5 % of the population of the city engage in volunteering. He concludes that the choice of the word “work” used in the definition of volunteering, along with the placement of the questions on a labor force survey, discouraged respondents from including informal volunteering and resulted in the low number.

A second option for definition and measurement involves using time-use surveys. As Salamon and colleagues discuss, time-use surveys require respondents to fill out detailed diaries with minute by minute accounts of what they did each day. Time-use diaries avoid the problems with recall biases but do not solve all problems. Time-use diaries are also expensive to administer, meaning that they are much more common in high-income countries than low-income ones. Of the 70 countries that have used time-use diaries, 25 have included categories for volunteering. Of these countries, 17 are high income, six are upper middle income (Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Poland, and South Africa), one is lower middle income (Thailand) and one is low (Mozambique).

Another option for definition and measurement on conventional surveys is the one recommended in the ILO Manual: to ask detailed questions with multiple prompts, trying to capture all voluntary use of time to help others without using the word “volunteering.” Even in the global North, where “volunteering” is a familiar word, researchers have found that respondents’ recall of their volunteer activities depends largely upon the number and nature of memory prompts on the survey (Rooney, Steinberg, & Schervish, 2004). Mexico’s National Survey on Solidarity and Voluntary Activity (Verduzco) takes this approach, asking respondents about 23 activities. To help with recall, the survey also asks how often the respondent performed the activity, over how long a span of time, and for how many hours in the most recent time. The extremely large number of prompts may be the main reason for Verduzco’s very high estimate of volunteering in Mexico: 76 % of the population engages in an average of 3.3 volunteer activities, for an average of 283 h per year. This average is more than five times the average estimated by Salamon and colleagues’ analysis of time-use data; they hold the average volunteer rate per person worldwide to be 9 min per day, or about 55 h per year.

A fourth option involves changing the focus from “volunteering,” a Northern concept, to include all the activities that people undertake to cooperate or help one another. While the inclusion of questions on person to person helping and the use of extensive prompts helps capture more activities, framing the definition of volunteering as work that involves helping still limits the conception of volunteering, and limits it in a way that favors Northern conceptions and behaviors. In this way, definitions of volunteering may project Northern “institutional logics” abroad, a process that can influence not only scholarship but also practice (Hammack & Heydemann, 2009). As many of the chapter authors have shown, Southern conceptions of volunteering include cooperation, social solidarity, and being a good neighbor. Most of the examples in this book come from the Latin American countries of Peru, Mexico, and Argentina (Chaps. 8-10), and further research is needed on other areas of the world. On the other hand, defining a concept too broadly can make the concept too big to study. In the introduction, we explained our adoption of the UNV and ILO definitions of volunteering and distinguished volunteering from civic engagement, social solidarity, cooperation, and other terms. Future studies may want to focus more broadly on cooperative behaviors that go beyond the provision of labor to help others.

Given all this evidence, it seems clear that future research should avoid asking about volunteering with one or a few questions and use either the time diary approach or the extensive prompts approach recommended by the ILO Manual and used by Mexico’s National Survey on Solidarity and Voluntary Action. This is easier said than done, however, as funding for these types of surveys is limited in the global South. This would be particularly important for surveys of informal, person to person helping, but even surveys of only formal volunteering would require a great number of prompts to fully capture the range of volunteering. Both of these methods are more rigorous and convincing than having one or a few questions about volunteering on a survey, but are much more expensive to administer. Incorporating questions about cooperation, social solidarity, and mutual assistance would increase the length and expense of a survey still further. The approach recommended by the ILO manual seems the best way to measure volunteering accurately across countries, and as more countries adopt this mode of measurement cross-national comparisons will become more possible.

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