International volunteers: Cheap help or transformational solidarity toward sustainable development
10 March 2011
by Peter Devereux
There is a dearth of research on the work of international volunteers in development even though they have been operating for over 50 years and it is a growing field of interest. This research investigates the current international development context and the characteristics, contributions and recognition of international volunteers who serve, through independent international volunteer cooperation organisations (IVCOs), for at least one year in development and sustainability work. International volunteers are an expression of civil society’s interest in international development providing a public face for development practices. International volunteers are not generally regarded as a significant part of aid from donor countries yet they address the Paris Declaration principles on development effectiveness like mutual accountability more successfully in many cases than conventional technical assistance.
My research methods included reflection and analysis of my personal and professional experience; reviewing documentation and research literature; a six week email discussion hosted by United Nations Volunteers World Volunteer Web with participants in 100 countries; an email survey of 30 international volunteers across 16 countries; and interviewing 24 volunteers and 75 other stakeholders mainly in Central America and Cambodia. The email survey and interview results were organised and analysed using NVivo software.
There is now mainstream consensus on major problems with conventional forms of development, particularly through technical assistance. Key elements of the international volunteer role and characteristics were found to be particularly conducive to improve on past practices and fit the new requirements of the current development context and its key links to sustainability. These include the importance of accompaniment and three way accountability (between local host, IVCO and volunteer); the relevance of living and working under local conditions and engaging with cross cultural issues; as well as important learning, liaison and bridging roles. Recognition of the volunteer contributions by Southern hosts and other development stakeholders was higher than even they expected with special recognition of complementary but distinct roles. However with this recognition comes the temptation to encourage volunteers and IVCOs to reproduce the existing roles and characteristics of other development practitioners.
Philosophically and practically, international volunteers for development and sustainability fit well within a relational view of development. This relational view emphasises capacity development, reciprocal learning and an indirect approach to cultivate respect for local ownership, autonomy and accountability in development. The research concludes with four key recommendations for research and practice in the sector and a personal reflection. The recommendations encourage: 1.) IVCOs to compare international volunteer contributions against the Paris Principles and not dilute their approach to duplicate existing development practice; 2.) further research on international volunteer contributions to the Paris Principles and relational development by investigating the experience of IVCOs, volunteers and communities before, during and after assignments; 3.) further research comparing volunteer development experiences by duration, country, IVCO type, host category and sector; and 4.) organisational analysis of IVCOs compared to other development and volunteer organisations.
Read full thesis: researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/3551/