Why We All Need to Own the 'V' Word

This says to me that we need to take volunteering out of the margins and into the mainstream. We in the sector have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine volunteering for the next few decades at least.

At the risk of being accused of rocking the boat here goes; maybe volunteering development organisations are not the only ones who can do volunteering.

I've been chewing this idea over while reading the Valuing Volunteering research we at VSO have just released in partnership with the prestigious Institute of Development Studies in the UK - a project of unprecedented scale that is the first to look at the impact volunteering has on poverty

The research was done in four countries over two years with 3,700 participants looking much more at how volunteering affects development as opposed to the impact on the volunteer, which we hear so much about. I think it challenges all of us working in the sector and provides lessons none of us can afford to ignore:

People become leaders in their own development

Volunteering is the key to unlocking the assets of local communities; so people become leaders of their own development and are resilient in the face of shocks and change.

In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, community volunteers stepped forward to provide urgent humanitarian, practical and psychosocial support to communities. More than a year on, volunteers not only are working on this recovery effort, but involved in climate adaptation and resilience programmes so these communities are better prepared in future.

The power of being embedded

Volunteers become embedded in some of the most marginalised communities in the world. This simple fact underpins the power of the sustainable development they deliver through simple human relations.

Whereas traditional development usually only offers consultation, this way of working allows people to participate in their own development outcomes.

No substitute for a paid workforce

Giving our time, knowledge and skills to others, without needing or expecting anything return, lies at the heart of human endeavour and social action. It is one of the most basic expressions of community solidarity. But we need to ensure volunteering is not mistaken as a cheap form of development assistance - or as a substitute for public service delivery and a well trained, well paid workforce.

Measuring the un-measurable

Finally, this unique model of people-centred development offers soft outcomes that are invaluable, despite being hard to quantify: the inspiration for greater active citizenship, the sense of confidence and empowerment that a community can gain from contact with a volunteer, the networks, the widening of the cultural horizons among them. A beautiful case study in the research of a Nepalese girl who voluntarily opened a school on the Nepal/ India border is a great example of this.

Out of the margins

This says to me that we need to take volunteering out of the margins and into the mainstream. We in the sector have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to redefine volunteering for the next few decades at least. The UN Secretary General already recognised the role of volunteering in his synthesis report about the development framework that will replace the Millennium Development Goals. We who value volunteers need to ensure this translates into powerful commitments in the framework signed by UN Member States next September in New York.

Changing our ways

So, I am throwing down the gauntlet to my counterparts at Peace Corps and the UNV who I join this week at a conference in Washington DC. I'm challenging them and others to use this new knowledge to inform and strengthen our operations and improve our chance of success. The lessons we've learned should give us new confidence to champion volunteering and also acknowledge that it's not the preserve of specialist international organisations. It's time for everyone engaged in tackling global poverty to own the "V" word with pride.

Philip is attending the LEVERAGING VOLUNTEERISM FOR GLOBAL IMPACT conference in Washington DC this week. A joint initiative of the U.S. Peace Corps and UNV a two-day workshop and a one-day global conference aim to develop a strong evidence base to support the role of volunteerism in peace and development.

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